Amy Hempel's compassion, intensity, and illuminating observations have made her one of the most distinctive and admired modern writers. In three stunning books of stories, she has established a voice as unique and recognizable as the photographs of Cindy Sherman or the brushstrokes of Robert Motherwell. The Dog of the Marriage, Hempel's fourth collection, is about sexual obsession, relationships gone awry, and the unsatisfied longings of everyday life.
In "Offertory," a modern-day Scheherazade entertains and manipulates her lover with stories of her sexual encounters with a married couple as a very young woman. In "Reference # 388475848-5," a letter contesting a parking ticket becomes a beautiful and unnerving statement of faith. In "Jesus Is Waiting," a woman driving to New York sends a series of cryptically honest postcards to an old lover. And the title story is a heartbreaking tale about the objects and animals and unmired desires that are left behind after death or divorce.
These nine stories teem with wisdom, emotion, and surprising wit. Hempel explores the intricate psychology of people falling in and out of love, trying to locate something or someone elusive or lost. Her sentences are as lean, original, and startling as any in contemporary fiction.
"as there anybody who wasn't here to get over something too?" wonders the narrator in the sublime "Offertory." Not in this book, Hempel's fourth collection (after 1997's Tumble Home), as unnamed narrators struggle with breakups, disillusionment, loss. Two marriages come to grief in the title story: the narrator's husband falls in love with someone else, while her gift of a dog has tragic consequences for another couple. In "Jesus Is Waiting," a woman mourning the loss of her lover's affection drives obsessively, becoming a connoisseur of truck stops and budget motels, "moved to tears when the lane I am in merges with another." The 50-year-old narrator of "The Uninvited" muses on the eponymous movie as she delays taking a pregnancy test; the potential father is either her estranged husband or her rapist. Dogs appear often, as creatures more giving and wise than the men and women who own them. All the remarkable, original obliqueness of Hempel's previous work is here, but with slightly less of its heart, and an earlier lightheartedness has been exchanged for a kind of gorgeous severity, as if each story began at four times its length and was stripped away until only what was essential remained. Though it's not the most accessible of collections, it's deeply affecting, as Hempel paints a fictional world that is sharp and lonely but also marked by beauty and unexpected generosity.