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Book Review: Home Remedies 

click to enlarge Harvest Books, 2007, $14
  • Harvest Books, 2007, $14
“In relationships one person always cares more than the other,” a mother warns a daughter in Angela Pneuman’s enticing debut, Home Remedies, “and if you find yourself in that position, you should make sure never to let it show.” Such is the bitter wisdom passed between generations of women in these funny yet frightening stories.
Tinged with Southern Gothic against a backdrop of Kentucky Evangelicanism, these are stories of relationships between girls and women—daughters, mothers, sisters, and friends—and the men (fathers and husbands) who tend to let them down. The young women persist—sometimes at great cost—to comfort and betray one another as they negotiate the pressures of faith and freedom, community and family, puberty and disease.
Currently a Presidential Fellow at SUNY Albany, Pneuman was a recent Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She was also raised in a conservative, Evangelical Christian community—hence, her rich subject matter.
In a 2005 interview for The Believer, Pneuman asked the brilliant short story writer Lorrie Moore, “Do you think of writing as a kind of willing, if indirect, personal exposure?” And the writing in Home Remedies is nothing if not willful—and brutally honest. The truth rises to the surface in these stories and makes these young women shake, say terrible things, dance, draw—even commit acts of violence against those they love.
“It’s hard to feel anything much when Wanda is in the room, taking up all the feeling,” a daughter remarks about her mother in “The Long Game,” the collection’s chilling clincher, and instantly we understand, and forgive, the protagonist’s annoying, uncommunicative, adolescent withdrawl. Such incisive moments are not rare in this collection, nor do they announce themselves heavy-handedly or demand false epiphany.
With the rhythm and verbal economy of a poet, Pneuman, who writes only in the third person, succeeds in making us feel what her characters feel. In the title story, as in several others, a young adolescent girl (in this case, Lena) is living alone with her mother after her father has left. The more her mother projects her own grief onto Lena, the less Lena can feel her own voice, until the physical manifestations of this dilemma reach gothic proportions.
Another stunning story, “The Beachcomber,” features a friendship between two teenage girls and the way that money and men start to come between them. In “Borderlands,” Shiloh (we forgive her these names) escapes the pain and confusion of puberty and her parents’ divorce through exerting power over her caretakers’ child. “Invitation” and “The Bell Ringer” both feature sisters who will do anything for one another, even as each wants something of what the other has. Both stories also exemplify another painful truth about how much we take from others in our efforts to help them, which is a theme that runs throughout.
The hilarious “All Saints Day,” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2004, brings us the ironically named Prudence and Grace, who dress as Salome and John the Baptist with a makeshift dagger and platter for a celebration at the local Methodist church. When they are not permitted to perform, the girls find their own adventure in the basement with a missionary boy who is suspected of being possessed, and redefine what it really means to save someone.
Only “Holy Land” falls short, and not just because of its brevity. In another collection, this story might seem compelling, but among stories of this emotional caliber, it doesn’t quite reach the bar.
All in all, the stories in Home Remedies satisfy Emily Dickinson’s barometer for good writing: They make you feel as though the top of your head were taken off. Just when you find yourself thoroughly charmed, you’ll be gasping in horror. These are not stories for the faint of heart. Pneuman tells it like it is: People do let it show when they care too much. And it burns, just like your mother said.
—Caitlin McDonnell

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