Strange Love: Stories
By Lisa Lenzo
Wayne State University Press: May 1, 2014
$18.99, 227 pages
Lisa Lenzo’s second story collection, Strange Love, is an intimate look at protagonist Annie Zito’s open-hearted attempts to find love after divorce. The nine stories taken cumulatively add up to a novel that captures several stages in her single motherhood, ranging from age 31 — two years post-divorce and with an 8-year-old daughter, Marly – to her mid-40s, when Marly is out on her own, facing her own personal struggles.
Annie is an intelligent, earnest, and pleasantly quirky character and narrator. Her efforts to repair her broken heart and find love again run the gamut from awkward and needy to reserved and wary. The characters of the men she becomes involved with are finely drawn depictions of the various forms of the modern male malaise. These are flawed and very human people, and Annie’s interactions with them remind us how finding a truly compatible life partner can seem like a miracle.
Despite Annie’s best intentions, complications always seem to arise. In the face of disappointment and frustration, she tries valiantly to remain flexible, sympathetic, and optimistic. But some relationships are not meant to be, and she eventually accepts this fact with bittersweet resignation. Yet, she returns in the next story, or perhaps the one after that, to try again – as one does.
If there is one thing we are loath to give up on, it is the search for love, intimacy, and companionship. We lick our wounds, retreat to our single lives of friends, family, work, and other interests, and live to fight the battle for love another day.
Although this might sound depressing, Annie’s innate goodness and slight eccentricity makes her someone with whom you enjoy spending time and for whom you wish only good things. There is reason for optimism on the reader’s part.
We also have the pleasure of watching the Marly grow up. The conversations between Annie and Marly will make you feel that Lenzo has been eavesdropping on your home life. Marly doesn’t hesitate to express her opinions of Annie’s various suitors or to tell Annie what she can and cannot do around Marly’s friends. After Marly runs through a long list of behaviors Annie must avoid, Annie responds, “You’re not letting me do anything!” To which Marly replies, “You can be quiet, polite, and not yourself.” Ouch. I think I know this kid. And I’ll bet you do, too. In time, Marly encounters her own romantic travails, including an abusive boyfriend, Mitch, who keeps both Marly and Annie on edge in a few stories.
While each story has an engaging plot line with a problem to be solved or conflict to be resolved, what stands out is the distinctive narrative voice Lenzo has created for Annie. It is so personal, so conversational and frank that reading Strange Love feels as if you are sitting down for a heart-to-heart talk with your best friend. In fact, these nine stories are so realistic and believable, so spot-on, that I often felt that I was reading a memoir.
Lenzo also makes particularly effective use of the rarely seen southwest Michigan setting, creating a palpable sense of place that acts as another main character. Annie lives in Saugatuck, a tiny art colony and liberal enclave on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Several characters live in Grand Rapids, and the narrative includes occasional trips into or discussions of Detroit, settings we rarely encounter in modern fiction (although, oddly enough, Emily St. John Mandel’s recent post-apocalyptic epidemic novel, Station Eleven, takes place in the same area).
Lenzo’s first collection, Within the Lighted City (1997) was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by University of Iowa Press. One of the stories in Strange Love, “Strays,” which details Marly’s penchant for trying to save strays of both the four-legged and two-legged variety, won the 2013 Georgetown Review short story contest. It is one of the highlights of this collection.
Still, Lenzo has been flying below the radar of most readers, and that needs to change. Strange Love will convince you that she is deserving of far greater recognition and acclaim.