Other People's Love Affairs: Stories
“The collection’s prevailing tone may be that of quiet melancholy, but it is suffused with joy.”
D. Wystan Owen’s debut collection of linked stories, Other People’s Love Affairs, is cause for celebration among readers who finished the final page of the late William Trevor’s Last Stories with regret, and who still hold onto hope that Alice Munro will come out of retirement.
These ten stories, in the best tradition of linked short stories, form an organic, cohesive narrative unified by theme, tone, place, and characters. This collection is also linked to the best short stories by its distinctive, clear, and lyrical prose. Every word and every image count.
The author was born in America to an American mother and an English father; he grew up in the States and lives in California now. Perhaps this subtly bifurcated identity and experience contributes to his capacity for acute description from a close, warm but very keen point of view, like an anthropologist, a participant-observer. Owen joins the tradition of insider-outsider writers, including William Trevor (who wrote of his native Ireland from his longtime home in Britain).
These stories take place in a fictional British seaside resort. The village of Glass is well and intentionally named. It has seen better days and contains its inhabitants, the narrators of the stories, like a fragile vessel. Owen uses images of light and glass throughout these pages, and his references work both as vivid description and evocative extended metaphor.
In this small community secrets are difficult to keep: personal boundaries in Glass, like glass, are translucent rather than opaque. The atmosphere of the village and the internal emotional experience of its denizens reflect and absorb the muted “opalescent” light of the declining seaside resort. The author’s well-crafted stories invite and reward re-reading, almost like poems.
Owen’s evocative stories are about love, loss, intentional and unintentional betrayals. The scale of the drama is small and personal, but the stakes and impact are profound. Every tale is told from the vantage point of narrators who (even if native) do not quite fit in, are not quite at home in the community.
The author demonstrates a remarkable capacity to enter the emotional experience of characters who range from young children to the elderly. He gently uncovers and plumbs the hopes and fears, memories, and griefs of all his characters including the teenage admirer of a lonely florist, a long-divorced dentist, a vagrant, a neonatal nurse, and an orphaned child at his first circus. Every one of them is a “lover of a kind,” and every one of them is missing someone, or pining for some ineffable, essential intimacy. Each is, in different ways and degrees, lonely, grieving, dispossessed.
These are stories of yearning for closeness, of remembering, imagining, and almost connecting but not quite. And in the world Owen creates, such imperfect, incomplete connection to one another must serve and may even be close enough.
For example, in “Housekeeper” the narrator Louise is a solitary young woman employed as caretaker for an elderly widower. One evening as she reads to Mr. Harris from his late wife’s library, he mistakes her for his wife. This does not displease her. She observes, “If there came even the briefest of moments when the old man might believe he was beside his wife again, that would say more for the world than she’d ever have dreamed.”
There are no weak or missing links in this chain of stories. Again, in the tradition of the best collections, although each individual story is complete unto itself, the combination comprises a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
The reader will find no tidy resolutions nor simple happy endings in Glass, but the provisional, marginal moments of tenderness and intimacy that provide a measure of comfort to Owen’s characters, will also satisfy those fortunate enough to discover Other People’s Love Affairs. The collection’s prevailing tone may be that of quiet melancholy, but it is suffused with joy.