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?
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
begins the title story.
Cam’s house is on the corner and the
bus stops there to pick up her daughter,
leads The Longest Part
Say I’m crazy about Roger who works in my
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,
a mother and daughter take culinary classes so they may open a bistro,
they are sidetracked by their affairs with men.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
with Pia Z. Ehrhardt
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