Finely-honed portraits of hope and change, these two novellas are linked so skillfully that they achieve the intensity of a single novel in which some characters succeed and others fail on separate but equally compelling quests. In "The Fires," Gina Morgan makes a pilgrimage to Uzbekistan to carry out her husband's final wish—to be cremated—only to find herself entirely at sea in the strange new reality of the former Soviet republic, while in "The Exorcism," Tom Swanson begins to make sense of his life when he retrieves his angry daughter from her exclusive New England college after her expulsion for setting fire to a grand piano.
In these two novellas, Cheuse (The Grandmothers Club; Lost and Old Rivers; etc.) dissects the aftermath of two very different deaths: one, of an American businessman traveling in Russia; the other, a mother, jazz pianist and drug addict. In the first novella, The Fires, a museum worker named Gina learns that her husband, Paul, died in a car accident while en route to Uzbekistan. Gina travels to Russia to ensure her husband gets cremated, per his wishes, and the foreign, surreal and familiar collide when Gina takes Paul s body to a Hindu ceremony to be cremated. The Exorcism applies much more overt dark humor to similar feelings in a substantially different character. An unnamed baby boomer discusses his sadness following the sudden death of his first wife, renowned jazz pianist Billie Benjamin, who fatally overdosed on heroin. Billie s death hits her daughter, Ceely, hard (she lashes out postcremation by torching a piano at her college), and the narrator s fond recollections of courting Billie are not received warmly by his new wife. Misery is in greater supply than comfort throughout, and Cheuse approaches his subjects from interesting angles, making these novellas of grief strangely compelling.