"Half in Love"
(Reviewed by Bill Robinson AUG 13, 2002)The short stories of Maile Meloy are highly compressed, wound tight. They are driven by a powerful inner tension that grips and holds the reader securely in place as events play out as Greek tragedy. These are not action stories. Most have a dirge-like quality-slow, solemn, and mournful. Most involve death and loss.
This is not to say that Half in Love is a depressing collection. However, it is a sad one. Stories are set in the dark interiors of life. Deceptively matter-of-fact and perfectly balanced prose proves that there is much to be learned in the blank, quiet spaces between words and sentences.
Author Maile Meloy is familiar with spaces, particularly of the wide-open variety. She was born and raised in the vastness of the American West. Her birthplace was Helena, Montana, and most of the stories in Half in Love are set in that state-on horse ranches, in small towns, and one, literally, in the woods (in a National Forest).
These places have a distant, far-away feel, an out-of-the mainstream, lonely quality. Meloy uses this geography to focus intently on her characters, individuals who are always stoic, forever facing the harsh reality of circumstances beyond their control.
The unpredictability of severe Western weather is another Meloy theme. Vast blue-gray skies are regularly threatened by rain. Days can be "cold blue." One story opens with the sentence: "It had been snowing hard for twenty-four hours and the snow stayed where it fell."
In "Kite Whistler Aquamarine," an attorney, a would-be horse breeder, struggles to keep alive a newborn colt, with "Derby bloodlines." The colt is found early one morning heavily frostbitten, having been born prematurely and outside in bitter winter cold. The right space would have been the warmth of the heated "foaling shed." His wife, also an attorney-a profession that proliferates these stories-looks on helplessly, as she fights her horse allergies and watches a dream slowly die.
In "A Stakes Horse," a terminally-ill, unnamed father, and Addy, his grown, unmarried daughter, race Rocky, "a horse who knows how fast she is," during a summer, which Addy realizes will be her father's last season. They win a large purse in a race that Addy suspects was fixed, courtesy of her former jockey husband, Connell. Addy then enters the horse in a race that she knows will be on the up-and-up; however, it is a "claiming race." All horses racing are for sale. As in almost all of Meloy's stories, things of great value are forever on the line.
"Aqua Boulevard" is a story for which Meloy received the 2001 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction for the best story published in The Paris Review. It is set in Paris and told in the voice of an aging Parisian, the father of two small children from a late-in-life marriage. A common Meloy theme is mortality. This story hones in skillfully on that topic, although this narrator doesn't sound as real and convincing as do her characters from Big Sky Country.
Meloy has a way with the quick take. She describes one minor character as having "a Ph.D. in anthropology, a police record for narcotics possession, a sorority pin and a ski-bum son in Jackson Hole."
In another story, Meloy paints a perfect portrait of a young teenage girl: "Amy stood at the kitchen counter, solemnly reading the funnies. Lanky and sandy-haired like her father, she wore soccer warm-ups that snapped down the side of each leg, a short-sleeve T-shirt with a flower on the chest, and rings with sparkling blue hearts and butterflies. Chase (her father) said thirteen-year-olds were like savages: you could buy Manhattan from them for a handful of beads."
Some stories begin in a way that demands their reading. One such is "Ranch Girl," one of the best in the collection. "If you're white and you're not rich or poor but somewhere in the middle, it's hard to have worse luck than to be born a girl on a ranch. It doesn't matter if your dad is the foreman or the rancher-you're still a ranch girl, and you've been dealt a bad hand."
What reader would not want to see this particularly hand played out? This is what is best about Meloy's stories. They arouse more than simply interest and compassion. It's rather a voyeuristic curiosity and sincere desire to watch as hands are played out, even if it's known up front that the deck is stacked, and that the odds don't favor the player. Most readers will be able to relate.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
Read an excerpt from Half in Love at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Half in Love: Stories (July 2002)
- Liars and Saints (June 2003)
- A Family Daughter (February 2007)
- Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (July 2009)
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- Official website for Maile Meloy
- The New York Times review of Half in Love
- Another The New York Times book review of Half in Love
- Reading Guide for Liars and Saints
- The New York Times review of Liars and Saints
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for Liars and Saints
- MostlyFiction.com review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it
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About the Author:
Maile Meloy was born in Helena, Montana. She received her MFA in creative writing from UCI. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Ontario Review and Best New American Voices. She was the winner of the 2000 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction (for the best short story in The Paris Review) for her story "Aqua Boulevarde."
She lives in California.