By Laura Hulthen Thomas
Dorene O’Brien brings exquisite art and unsentimental heart to the intimate character studies that illuminate her new short fiction collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, published by Baobab Press. While the title suggests that hope is the characters’ binding agent, the eleven stories in this compelling collection spar with the courage, resilience, and downright obstinacy of independent-minded people who refuse to let crises, quotidian hardships, or just plain bad luck whittle away at their hard-won idealism. Set in a swath of upper Midwest towns and cities, from upstate New York to Idaho, O’Brien’s cast is as varied and determined as her gritty settings. An herbalist’s “selective benevolence” includes dispensing tough love about the dangers of Cheetos along with her curative dandelion tea. A tarot card reader aspires to save Detroit from blight and casinos. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis leads a research scientist to find new meaning in the crystals he can no longer study. Story by story, line by line, O’Brien reveals that forging our own destinies when circumstances elude our control is the collection’s real glue.
In the opening story, “Eight Blind Dates Later,” a commitment-shy auto mechanic who longs to re-connect with the ex-lover who jilted him endures a string of blind dates arranged by his mother. O’Brien populates the story with plain-speaking characters working as mechanics and call center employees. O’Brien deftly weaves the tapestry of these non-glamorous jobs as a backdrop to the ex-girlfriend’s attempt to re-invent herself as a glamorous romance novelist. When describing the ex’s oeuvre, O’Brien’s prose sparkles with vivid riffs on romance novel clichés, the best one being a racy plot line involving a lurid Christmas sweater. Sly humor abounds, as when Johnny notes of his ex, “She wasn’t the least bit embarrassed, a trait, I now realize, is not uncommon in romance writers.” Johnny’s failure to recognize his own shortcomings in one of his ex’s self-involved protagonists is, at first, played for laughs, but then gracefully turns Johnny’s eventual self-realization not into the expected regret, but a “newfound will to see the best in people.” The utility of willful optimism finds a beautiful realization when Mom’s final blind date reveals a future Johnny never dared to grasp on his own.
Other stories portray hope not as the brass ring up for grabs, but as an intentional practice for survival. In “Falling Forward”, a grieving woman finds new purpose by repeatedly bailing her drunken, ne’er-do-well neighbor from jail. The neighbor’s pet lizard, a tenacious, oddly wise creature named Little Richard, becomes the conduit for Faith’s growing admiration for Ed’s suffering. When Faith convinces Ed to release Little Richard from captivity, O’Brien’s deft descriptions make us feel Faith and Ed’s leap into fresh futures not as redemption, but a mandate to embrace “freedom in all its pain and possibility”. In “Harm None”, a woman whose husband is MIA in Vietnam pledges to live with her mother-in-law, the tough love herbalist, until her husband comes home. Both women come to share the belief that staying together to minister to their small town sick is the only way to bring their missing loved one back to them. The women survive both financial struggles and a loss of faith by building a successful herbal tea business that practices another of the collection’s themes, that “energy sent to sick people did not replace their responsibility for their own well-being but simply kicked their own healing into gear.”
Although the DIY approach to struggle threads through many stories, O’Brien also writes eloquently of how our bodies can turn on themselves despite our care and best intentions. At times the betrayal is humorous, as when Faith comes to understand that the recurring rash she suffers with her publicly romantic first husband means “she was not bursting from love, but from embarrassment.” In other stories, the body plays turncoat in heartbreaking ways. In the collection’s title story, a mortician who is “keenly aware of how a body can turn on a person without notice” learns that only by piercing his professional detachment towards these bodies can he feel the hope raw grief can bring. In “Honesty Above All Else”, Detroit is the body and the corruption that leads to blight is the betrayal.
Woven into her collection’s generous tapestry of minds, bodies, and places, O’Brien’s characters share one common past; they have all built their earlier lives on faith. Since hope once gave them the moxy to get where they are in life, the search to feel hope again gives these stories a practical and spiritual heft beyond the typical redemption narrative. In What It Might Feel Like to Hope, faith is not an ephemeral force, but the bootstrap that gets the job done. O’Brien’s insightful, beautiful writing and exquisite attention to craft do the same.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Might-Feel-Like-Hope/dp/1936097214
Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and many other literary journals. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION (Wayne State University Press, 2017) was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award.