One by one, they march across the proscenium of Amy Bloom's new story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. They are grouchy academics, pissed-off orphans, and melancholy middle-aged lawyers. They are characters as real as ourselves and our friends, but mysteriously rendered lovable. What makes a character lovable? It's a mysterious thing, the fact that a reader can fall in love with a nonexistent person. If we want to understand how this happens, we ought to look closely at Bloom's collection, which is like a lovability primer.
The book is comprised of two sets of linked stories, as well as a few stand-alones. The first set of four stories concerns Clare and William. The two are old friends, married to other people who are better looking and nicer than they are. Clare is a prickly academic, described by another character as "no day at the beach." William is a gout-ridden probable alcoholic, described by another character as a "big fat smoothie."
The two couples have been a small, friendly tribe for many years when William and Clare surprise themselves by betraying their fine, kind spouses and starting a clandestine affair, the kind of affair that takes place at motels hard by the interstate with wine cooling in the bathroom sink. (Fans of Laurie Colwin will be reminded of Another Marvelous Thing, also a set of linked stories about a pair of crabby, ill-suited lovers.) This affair leads, through the course of four stories, to a small portion of happiness and also to that other side of the happiness coin, heartbreak. These are two grown-ups who know that they're not going to be let off easily. Their foray into love takes real courage; they have perfect foresight of the fact that they will be taking lumps, one way or another.
And yet we come to feel tenderly toward this unappealing pair. In Fiction Writing 101, you learn that the way to make characters lovable is to give them imperfections. The reader, it is thought, will feel more sympathetic toward a character who is not quite perfect. Certainly William and Clare are more interesting than their paragonlike spouses. Consider this description of William, from Clare's point of view: "At the beach last summer, he'd kept to his linen pants and guayabera ('Fat men may not appear in bathing suits,' he said). … I thought every part of him must be a pink-tinged white, wide and thick and immaculately kept." This passage creates a lot of good will in the reader toward both William and Clare. He has that good, self-deprecatory joke; she has that inappropriately sexualized gaze, directed at such an unlikely object. They become more lovable in just a couple of sentences.
Bloom goes a little further, though, than simply creating imperfect, faulty characters. She writes from a place where faults and virtues aren't meaningful distinctions. Clare's intransigence, William's gluttony: These aren't faults or virtues. They're simply the stuff these characters are made of, neither good nor bad. This is what nonjudgment looks like in a fiction writer. Bloom's exploration of her characters is niftily supported by the structure of the book. Linked short stories make an elegant vessel for character development. They create a place where characters can grow, and do odd things, and surprise us.
Full disclosure, if not of bias, then of critical fickleness: I have not always loved linked stories. Recently I came across a book review I wrote about 10 years ago in which I asserted that I, in fact, hated them. What turned me? I think it's this: As I've gotten older, I've become less invested in plot. I just can't muster the interest that I once had. I've seen 'em all, coming and going, and now excessive plotting seems like a lot of din. I read plot the way I watch my kid somersault: "That's nice, dear."