Review of “Empty House” by Julia Strayer, published in the Kenyon Review Online

There are certain stories that lull you into an unbreakable hypnosis — a spell so thorough that you’ll forgot all other obligations and spend the next 20-30 minutes of your life dedicated to the story, not because you want to, but because you have to, because of the spell to which you are now beholden. I think this happens through some combination of rhythm and cadence created by the language — some auditory magic that happens on a level that we aren’t aware of yet, as readers. This is what happened to me both times I read, “Empty House” by Julia Strayer.

The story is narrated by a woman who most of the time wanders through life in her bathrobe and, who, when she needs them, drives to the laundromat for cigarettes because they still have the vending machine that you can stick coins in and watch the pack drop into the reservoir for your hand to squeeze into and claim. The woman who lives next door happens to be her mother, who the narrator refers to as “the neighbor lady,” and this “neighbor lady” tells the narrator she can’t keep going around town in her bathrobe. To which the narrator responds: “Everyone at the laundromat is used to seeing me in my bathrobe.”

In the story, the narrator is attempting her best—or what we think of as her best—to raise a precocious four-year-old who loves dogs, ducks, and the color pink. The daughter, like the neighbor lady, wants her mother to stop smoking. But the pressure the daughter, Fern, applies to the mother is more in the form of an unasked question: do I really need you as a mother? Of course the answer is yes, emotionally, but practically speaking, Fern is thriving: feeding herself, picking out paint, raising the dog, and motivating her mother.

The narrator and “neighbor lady” have a tumultuous history that isn’t fully revealed. What we do know is that the neighbor lady is now trying to make up for parental deficiencies of the past. She even tells her daughter, the narrator, when referring to her and Fern staying in the same room for the time being: “A girl should be with her mother.” And the narrator responds: “Oh that’s good coming from you.”

Which is a perfect set of lines to show the distance between the two. We don’t need to know precisely what it was that pulled them apart initially—do we ever know, or do we ever remember what those initial fights with loved one are about anyway?—but instead, we only need to know that there’s a riff somewhere, and the “neighbor lady” is trying to repair it while also trying to keep her daughter, the narrator, from losing it completely. The narrator has been damaged by the lack of sustained connections in her life, one with her mother, and the other, which becomes more apparent as the story continues, is with Fern’s father. Fern’s always asking in some way, spoken exactly or not: Why can’t we be like a normal family? And the mother/narrator has to steel herself against the idea of what a traditional family is, when in fact she has a family unit surrounding her all along: mother, daughter, dog, and ducks.

The story is lush with detail and insights so true and vibrant that many times I found myself nodding along in agreement to the narrator’s thoughts. And as timely and true as those are, they are made more so because of the wonderful dialogue throughout — those gripping, heart-wrenching conversations between the three generations of women. Writers who want to learn how to write damn good dialogue, or teachers who want an excellent example to show students, will do well by suggesting “Empty House” by Julia Strayer.

Or, if none of that matters to you and you simply want to read a damn good story, full of heart and intimate human textures, read this story.

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