This is a Voice from Your Past: New and Selected Stories
by Merrill Joan Gerber
Published by Ontario Review Press
219 pages, 2005
Gerber's Steadfast Voice
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
In This is a Voice from Your Past, a collection of previously published and new short stories, veteran fiction writer Merrill Joan Gerber demonstrates her prowess at characterization and prose. She is Every Woman, taking complex issues from the day-to-day lives of ordinary women and making them the reader's own. Among Gerber's many strengths is the ease with which she "shows, not tells," conveying meaning without hitting the reader over the head.
Who among us hasn't wondered about the fate of the classmate voted "most likely to succeed"? Janet, the narrator of the title story, learns what happened to her college boyfriend when she receives a call from him several years after graduation. Ricky had been the most gifted writer in her class. He also happened to be married. Now he and Janet have switched places; he is a divorced and decidedly unsuccessful -- and unmotivated -- writer, while Janet is a happily married mother of two with a flourishing career. Intuited is the "What if?" in the back of Janet's mind. Over the next 30 years, she hears from Ricky on two more occasions, each time discovering that he has sunk further into the abyss of failed dreams. Arguably the best story in the book, it's easy to see why it was chosen as the title.
Because several of the stories feature the same characters, at times the book reads like a novel. In addition to the title story, Janet and her husband Danny appear with other family members in "We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy," "I Don't Believe This" and "My Suicides." In the last two stories, at least part of the plot revolves around the suicide of the husband of Janet's sister Carol.
Suicide is just one of several recurring themes, including personal relationships and power struggles. Not all the stories are especially dark, although a reader could never accuse Gerber's characters of frivolity. In "Latitude," a young wife calmly reflects on her hard-won power over her husband's parents who had tried everything to prevent the marriage. "Dogs Bark," relays the narrator's increasingly paranoid, decade-long conflict with neighbors whose dogs keep her and her husband awake nights. This is one story where the reader may lose patience with the main character, wondering if perhaps she unconsciously thrives on the discord.
The stories in This is a Voice from Your Past are intelligent and well-written. Gerber's fans will not be disappointed; fiction readers who are unfamiliar with this writer's work will be impressed by her ability to construct a story without feeling compelled to tie things up neatly at the end. Writers of fiction can learn much from Gerber's subtle character development and her knack for making the reader look forward to meeting the characters again. | December 2005
Mary Ward Menke is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two dogs. Her Web site is www.wordabilities.com.