“Unforgettable” by Paulette Alden (Radiator Press, $4.99 ebook, $13.99 paperback, free at Amazon Prime)
Minnesotan Alden jokes that she went from “The Reluctant Self-Publisher” to “The Obnoxious Self-Promoter” when she self-published her book “The Answer to Your Question.” Now she’s hoping readers will look for her new — and wonderful — story collection.
These nine stories feature Miriam Batson, the author’s persona from her collection “Feeding the Eagles” (Graywolf Press). The first four stories, Alden says, are about experiences that had important emotional impacts for her. The last five, some of which are heartbreaking, are to be read in sequence because they follow Miriam’s journey as her mother ages.
Miriam is a middle-age college professor when the book begins. In the first story “The Student,” she has feelings for a young man but she isn’t sure what they are. Is he like a son? Is it a little sexual? The most riveting is “Enormously Valuable,” in which Miriam is passed over for a tenured position that’s given to a man, even though she has published as much as he has and has more teaching experience. A male faculty member she’s considered a sort-of friend tells her she’s “enormously valuable” to the department but the new guy is fresh and exciting. Miriam, who was raised in South Carolina, goes through many emotions as she tries to decide whether to sue for sex discrimination. This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she thinks in her shock: WHY NOT? because, because, because. … Because she was nice! She didn’t ask for too much (only a temporary job), she was an excellent, overly conscientious worker, cheerful, gracious, modest, supportive, a team player, reasonable, didn’t make waves. … She knew how to be nice. Her whole upbringing had been about being nice.
Even after Miriam decides to sue, she asks her lawyer whether she’s being “ridiculous.” Her woman lawyer replies: You know, it’s sad that you have to ask that. Women get screwed all the time, and then they think that somehow it’s their fault. So no, you’re not crazy.
This reader cheered for Miriam when she realizes that she might have started out as a quivering mass of female insecurity but over the years something inside had solidified, gotten a grip. She could feel this mysterious part of herself as if it were a rod inside her, holding her up.
The stories about Miriam’s mother’s decline move from Miriam and her sister realizing their mom can no longer live alone in the big house in South Carolina to Miriam caring for her mother in Minnesota. At first their strong-minded mother is in assisted living, where she constantly calls Miriam to come and find her purse. There are times when exhausted Miriam hates what her mother has become. But there is laughter too when they are together. Slowly, Miriam begins to realize she must put her mother, who keeps falling, into a nursing home.
The small touches Alden writes about will resonate with everyone who’s cared for a parent: Miriam bending down to help her mother pull up her underpants and confronting her mom’s “big, white butt,” navigating her mother’s transition to the nursing home while putting on a good face and wanting to weep, a disastrous weekend at a resort where her mom is confused, doesn’t sleep and only wants to go back to her room.
Some fiction is so “real” you stop reading when a scene knocks you out with familiarity. “Yes,” you’ll say to yourself, “that’s exactly the way it was for my family.”