To this irresistible debut collection of short stories, Richard Russo brings the same bittersweet wit, deep knowledge of human nature, and spellbinding narrative gifts that distinguish his best-selling novels. His themes are the imperfect bargains of marriage; the discoveries and disillusionments of childhood;the unwinnable battles men and women insist on fighting with the past.
A cynical Hollywood moviemaker confronts his dead wife’s lover and abruptly realizes the depth of his own passion. As his parents’ marriage disintegrates, a precocious fifth-grader distracts himself with meditations on baseball, spaghetti, and his place in the universe. And in the title story, an elderly nun enters a college creative writing class and plays havoc with its tidy notions of fact and fiction. The Whore’s Child is further proof that Russo is one of the finest writers we have, unsparingly truthful yet hugely compassionate and capable of creating characters real that they seem to step off the page.
Russo's sterling reputation is largely due to his astounding ability to present the tangled emotions of troubled parent-child and marital relationships with comic verve, bracing clarity and dramatic tension fused with an undercurrent of pathos. These predicaments are well represented in the seven stories of his first collection, whose protagonists betray themselves and others in different social milieus. The brassy, flaky mother in "Joy Ride," who leaves her stodgy husband in Camden, Maine, and drives across the continent with her 12-year-old son in search of "freedom," may have much in common with the overbearing, intellectually pretentious mother in "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," in which her 10-year-old son tries to fathom the implicit but inexplicable rules of adult behavior, but one woman is forced to admit defeat in the marital game, and the other is triumphant. In another case of parallel identities, the emotionally constricted college professor in "The Farther You Go" and the professor emeritus in "Buoyancy" must both acknowledge betrayal of their wives, not through deeds but as a result of their cold self-absorption. Ironically, the misogynistic Hollywood photographer in "Monhegan Light" learns a bitter lesson in Martha's Vineyard when he discovers his dead wife's decency in protecting him from knowledge of her longtime affair. The most memorable character here, however, is the title story's Sister Ursula, the daughter of a prostitute whose lifelong search for her absent father ends with a heartbreaking epiphany. Russo's rueful understanding of the twisted skein of human relationships is as sharp as ever, and the dialogue throughout is barbed, pointed and wryly humorous. The collection is a winner.