In these fifteen stories, Janie Dempsey Watts takes the reader from Los Angeles to Georgia to Sicily as her characters navigate and discover what it means to be family. Watts employs impressive variety and detail in the settings and perspectives. The book is divided into three sections organized around location: the south, California, and Europe. Watts succeeds in evoking a strong sense of place no matter the chosen setting, and in this case, “setting” is much more than location, encompassing era, age, and even the families themselves, always with meticulous detail. The writing is swift, precise, and continually pushes the narrative. The stories never drag or overstay their welcome. In fact, there were more than a few times when stories would have benefited from more exploration of their later developments.
Despite this consistent strength, it can sometimes feel like a detailed setting looking for a more substantial story. The plot and conflict can sometimes feel perfunctory or even petty as in “Aunt Trish’s Wedding Gift” or “Clanfusion” In both instances the protagonists learn to loosen up and embrace the eccentricities of life and family; however, this only feels like progress because of initial overreactions. The resolutions of these stories – and others – are tidy and frequently end with figurative “group hug” moments. A couple stories even literally end with a chorus of laughter. This feels shallow, especially compared to the more complex situations Watts explores elsewhere. Several stories do attempt darker endings, but this doesn’t result in greater complexity or resonance, but simple shock, suddenly ending a story with tragedy standing in for satisfaction.
Watts’ strongest stories, however, defy simple “happy” or “tragic” endings. “Rotten Apples” is the standout of the collection precisely because of its ending’s subtle nuances. A mission to uncover her father’s possible infidelity forces sixteen-year-old Sarah to reconsider her understanding of love, relationships, and trust. Whereas change threatens in other stories, we see it manifested here in both tangible and psychological ways. Though the narration struggles to adopt a convincing modern or teenage tone, the story surpasses the more singular neatness of the others, effectively layering and intersecting plot and subplot.
“Lavanderia Automatica,” in which an unhappy wife is pursued by an amorous Italian, is similarly successful because it confronts complexity and risk. While the romantic Italian is a well-worn trope, the real interest is in watching Cecilia run out of compelling reasons to resist his embrace. Here, as elsewhere, the strength of setting, a lonely Roman laundromat, elevates it further; the tension between foreign and familiar elements echoes the protagonist’s dilemma.
It’s these endings that usher the protagonist into the unknown – endings that function also as beginnings – where short fiction and MOTHERS, SON, BELOVEDS, AND OTHER STRANGERS shines brightest. While not every story achieves this, the variety present in the collection ensures every reader will find something to like and come away with a different view of those they call family.
~Andrew Davison for IndieReader