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Famous Fathers and other stories

Pia Z. Ehrhardt

I have to remind myself that it was just sex and pleasant talk, not oxygen."

Reviewed by Liz Prato

John Updike made a literary career off of suburban infidelity, and Pia Z. Ehrhardt is kicking off hers with the same topic in Famous Fathers and Other Stories. The reasons Ehrhardt’s white, middle-class New Orleans protagonists cheat on their husbands or sleep with other women’s husbands are not particularly unique or insightful: they are bored, dissatisfied and vaguely lonely. They expected their lives to be more exciting, and feel entitled to seek fulfillment through infidelity – and they quite rarely feel guilty. Sounds like Updike in the Bijou, right?

Yet Ehrhardt’s characters are oddly likeable — probably because they’re oddly familiar, neither spectacular nor mundane. All these women gain – and struggle with – identity through their relationship roles: daughter, mother, wife, sister, lover. Their role is identified in the first sentence of each story. 

My father is the mayor of Texadelphia,
begins the title story.
Cam’s house is on the corner and the school bus stops there to pick up her daughter,
leads The Longest Part of the Day.
Say I’m crazy about Roger who works in my office building,

starts How it Floods. We’re never entirely clear what, exactly, the narrator does in that office building; all that matters is that her married, potential lover is there. Even when these women try to establish themselves in the larger world, as in Running the Room, where a mother and daughter take culinary classes so they may open a bistro, they are sidetracked by their affairs with men.

In A Man, Lillian tries to recover in the hospital after a man raped her and chopped off her hand. Ehrhardt describes the trauma without sensationalizing it, giving just enough detail so the reader feels the horror of the crime, but not enough to be traumatized themselves. While she is recovering, the teenage boy who rescued Lillian becomes her emotional hostage. She cannot process what happened to her, but she will tell the horror to this young man.

She shocked him with details and made him her witness.

This sentence is a perfect example of what works and what frustrates in many of these stories; sometimes the starkness works to exemplify the matter-of-fact viewpoint of the characters, but other times it descends into telling the reader what has already been so beautifully painted by the prose. It’s already perfectly clear that Lillian was forcing this boy to be her witness, and that simple declaration makes it seem that Ehrhardt isn’t trusting the reader, or trusting herself. 

Despite these dips into over-telling and the occasional falter into obvious metaphor (“The loss of balance must’ve made the trailer topple,” says the unstable narrator of Immediate Goals), the reader knows they’re in safe hands with lines like:

He thinks there is a thick black line between a woman who stays and a woman who leaves.

Yes, it’s a simple sentence that tells us something about the narrator, but it poses a larger question: not whether she is the type to stay or go, but what does a woman do when she is stuck in the murky middle? And that is ultimately the question that all of Ehrhardt’s characters must face — or maybe what they must face is there is no easy answer.

Intrigued? Read one of the stories from this collection on NarrativeMagazine.com

Liz Prato’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, Subtropics, and Who’s Your Mama: An Anthology on Motherhood, among others. She’s a Pushcart nominee, winner of the Berkeley Fiction Review's 2005 Sudden Fiction Competition, and a runner-up for the 2007 Juked Fiction Prize. She’s a massage therapist and writing instructor in Portland, Oregon.

Liz's other Short Reviews: Cristina Henriquez "Come Together, Fall Apart"   


Publication Date: June 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Pia Z. Ehrhardt's stories have been widely published in magazines including McSweeney's Quarterly, the Mississippi Review, Oxford American, and Narrative Magazine, and anthologized in the 2006 Norton Anthology Sudden Fiction: Short-Shorts from America and Beyond. She is the recipient of the 2005 Narrative Prize and a Bread Loaf Fellowship.

Read an interview with Pia Z. Ehrhardt

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Author's choice: Lemuria Books




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