Perfect Lives
 by Polly Samson

Virago
2010
Second Collection

Awards: Shortlisted, 2011 Edge hill Short Story Prize







"I don’t know how long I stood there just staring and stroking the silky brown leather of the strap. I longed to hold that strap to my face, to wind it in bracelets around my wrists, to inhale the scent of the leather, but cold feel Barry’s eyes on me. He spoke some more, about perfection. "


Reviewed by Michelle Reale

Polly Samson puts the quotidian at center stage in these 11 stories told against the backdrop of the ocean, her characters inhabiting homes at a seaside town. I immediately liked the setting of the stories, water being the great symbol of the subconscious. So what do we find here? Samson regales us with tales of lives slightly off kilter, better situations to be found elsewhere, where everyone is prettier, more faithful, dreams come true, passions are well noted and encouraged, where one realizes in the moment how good life is, without having to learn by near misses.

Admittedly this is my first encounter with the author’s writing. I groaned inwardly at her interesting and rather flamboyant life, expecting to find stories of truly perfect lives, where perhaps, the worst tragedy to befall anyone would be for a heel to fall off a Manolo Blahnik. I am ashamed of myself, of course, because when I began reading, immediately, I could see the acute attention to very real emotional detail and overall verisimilitude portrayed on the page. These were no stories of the Jackie Collins variety.

In Leaving Hamburg, a concert pianist leaving the German city worries over her strong reaction daughter’s recent tattoo, a butterfly ". . . a single splash of graffiti, no longer a guilty secret; a lone dark dog shit scrawled on the snow covered pavement." She juxtaposes her angst with a visitation to her grandmother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery remembering her beloved Bobo and the sacrifices she’d made for her family.

In The Birthday Present, a woman dabbles in the guilty pleasure of picture taking with a Leica camera her husband does not know that she has and that she cannot afford. Her real life has taken a back seat to the life she sees through the lens, until that life becomes more real and desirable than the one she is living. Forgetting her husband’s birthday and his sweet nature over her transgression, make her obsession all the more poignant and alarming.

A picture restorer in A Regular Cherub barely recognizes her husband who has taken to nature in a way that makes her increasingly uncomfortable. She cares for their child with a chilling detachment, while coming up against her mother-in-law, an earthy and aggressive woman who wants to envelop her grandson into the only way of life she knows and believes in.

Morganna is a story of an unlikely friendship between two women who drive together stalking the house of Morganna’s ex-husband, father of her children, only love of her life, as he co-habits with his much younger and talented girlfriend. When he lands in the hospital with a head injury, he prefers the company and caring of his wife to his girlfriend, giving Morganna the one opportunity to get from him the most important thing he has denied her since their divorce.

Samson portrays life much in the way it is lived by most of us: the highs occur, surely, moments when we can’t believe our luck and the lows where we cannot imagine what we did to offend the gods in a former life. Most of us, perhaps, thankfully, live in between. It is that middle area that Samson portrays so well.

Read a story from this collection on Virago Books


Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in many venues. She was included in Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2010. Her chapbook Natural Habitat was published by Burning River in 2010. Two chapbooks are forthcoming from Thunderclap Press and Burning River in 2011.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Sana Krasikov "One More Year"

Jody Lisberger "Remember Love"

Anne Donovan "Hieroglyphics"

Joan Aiken "The Serial Garden"

Shellie Zacharia "Now Playing"

Eva Tihanyi "Truth and Other Fictions"

Stefanie Freele "Feeding Strays"

Kathryn Ma "All That Work And Still No Boys"

Tara Masih "Where the Dog Star Never Glows"

Robin Black "If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
                     
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Polly Samson was born in London in 1962 and grew up in the West Country. Her first job was in the clay industry, her second in publishing. At the age of twenty-four she became a director of Jonathan Cape and subsequently became a journalist, including a three year stint at the shallow end of the Sunday Times. Since the early 1990s, Polly has written lyrics with David Gilmour, firstly for Pink Floyd's The Division Bell and latterly for On an Island, both of which went straight to number one. She has been on the judging panel for the Costa Prize, and will judge the 2011 Asham Prize for Virago. Polly has four children and four stepchildren, and lives with her family in London and on the South coast. Her previous collection, Lying in Bed, was followed by a novel, Out of the Picture.

Read an interview with Polly Samson