God of love

Amy Bloom once more into the breach
By SUSAN CHAMANDY  |  January 19, 2010


1001_bloom_mains
DIRECT GAZE Bloom's floating point of view is like a magic act — a technical feat informed by compassion.

Where the God of Love Hangs Out | By Amy Bloom | Random House | 224 pages | $25
Amy Bloom is known for her psychological acuity, especially as it bears on the subject of love. In her new collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, her characters — often very knowing — are nonetheless surprised by the undertow. A pair of long-time friends who are married to others fall in love. A social worker expresses her admiration and devotion to a client who barely knows she exists. A recently widowed woman who's lost in her grief sleeps with her stepson.

At her best, Bloom writes about these complex relationships with vividness and nuance. Her prose is direct and intimate. In the title story, Ray, a late-middle-aged husband, struggles with impotence and his diminished desire for his wife. "Ashamed and sorry for himself" because of his "unmistakably old-man erections," he lies in bed with his back to his wife. "Ellie turned on the light to look at him. She had her pink silk nightgown on and her face was shiny with moisturizer. She pulled up on one elbow and leaned around him. He saw the creases at her neck and between her breasts, the tiny pleats at her underarms, the little pillow of flesh under her sharp chin, and he thought, She must be seeing the same thing." Everything is there — even the suggestion, in Ellie's snapping off the light, that she perceives his disappointment with what he sees. Bloom's compassion for both characters makes the scene.

In "Permafrost," the social worker, Frances, fixates on her teenage client, who has been stricken with a flesh-eating disease that results in an amputated foot. Beth is a survivor who goes on to great things — and a place on the cover of People. Frances writes letters to Beth, strangely personal and inappropriate letters, but filled with admiration for the girl, and a barely concealed need to understand herself and the narrow life she has, which started with a lonely childhood looking after her widowed father.

By the end we realize — even if Frances doesn't — that she's stuck with the fatalism she learned from her dad. She writes to Beth: "I have somehow not had the right things for this journey and I have packed and repacked a hundred times as if somehow the right thing will be found in some small pocket, put in by someone with more sense or gift than me, but I'm always scrambling for the last-minute thing and I am always, always watching the boat pull away without me." She reaches for connection, but you suspect her letters go largely unread. In the end, the letters are like Frances's call to the world — I exist, but I do not prevail.

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