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Love Stories in This Town Love Stories in This Town By Amanda Eyre Ward Ballantine Books 224 pages, $14 R Abook of short stories is a curious thing. Each component story could be anything. In one, the protagonist may be a meth-addled architect who imagines he’s Nebuchadnezzar. In another, it may be a 10-year-old girl waiting for the mail. As I understand it, the only requirement of a short story is that it suspend moments in time so that those moments can be fully experienced. Most authors treat short story collections like mix tapes: a little high, a little low, an overarching theme and a satisfying resolution, like the feeling of arriving in your own driveway after a long trip. Not Amanda Eyre Ward. The 37-yearold Austin-based author of three novels \(Forgive Me, How to Be Lost, and Sleep has just published Love Stories in This Town, a collection of 12 stories that seem like minor variations on a theme, or multiple alternate universes inhabited by a single character. Moreover, while the book’s theme is purportedly the importance of place, Love Stories in This Town seems much more convincingly a study of loneliness. Part One comprises six stories in six locations with what one assumes was meant to be six discrete protagonists. Part Two is called “Lola Stories,” and its six tales dip in and out of the life of the title character and her relations. Read back to back, the female protagonists blur and smudge into a single character: American, white, and middle-class. She has a liberal education and doesn’t make much money. In “Should I Be Scared?” she has a B.A. in anthropology and works at a ceramics-painting studio. In “Butte as in Beautiful:’ she’s a librarian. In “ ,” she’s a “content editor” at a flailing startup. Her husband is usually a scientist \(“The Stars Are supportive and tender partner. Whose wife wants a baby. My God, how she wants a baby. Two of the first six stories center on the early end of a pregnancy; in another the protagonist is pregnant; in still another, the protagonist’s sister is enviably pregnant. The Lola stories alone feature three pregnancies. It eventually becomes clear that Ward’s baby-crazy protagonist is looking to motherhood to provide her with purpose and cure her implacable loneliness. Loneliness sounds like a terrible theme for a book of short stories. Who wants to tongue the grooves of modern isolation? But Ward makes a subtle pleasure of the experience, like the resolution of a minor chord or a gently pressed bruise. Her language is simplecolors are blue and yellow, never cerulean or mustardand careful. Her protagonist is a woman a little apart from the world, observant and sensitive. She needs her space; she’s always slipping away to the bathroom, or to the kitchen for another drink. And she’s alone. Ward describes not a single strong female friendship or support system or companionship for her character other than a kind, patient husband and a trying family. Ward’s three strongest stories are the ones that deviate from her marriedwith-baby-issues character, and all three center on the strange bonds forged by terrible need. The young librarian of the book’s second story, “Butte as in Beautiful:’ is a valedictorian whose dreams of going to college on a basketball scholarship deteriorate with her wounded knee. It begins with the memorable line, “It’s a crappy coincidence that on the day James asks for my hand in marriage, there is a masturbator loose in the library” \(Ward has a thing for these hand-flashing openers; the next story starts, I think regrettably, “They told us the baby was dead, and two days later so beautiful about the Butte story is that the librarian’s feelings are veiled even to herself right until the last sentence, when a moment of truth with a lonely stranger blossoms into an insight as authentic as it is unexpected. “Nan and Claude the second Lola story, explores Lola’s mother’s relationship with her hairdresser, Claude. When Nan is first married and feeling out of place in her new community, she splurges on Claude’s services, and he gives her the cut, the color, and the confidence she needs to integrate. He treats her like the country club natural she wants to be, and she regales him with stories of parties and business successes. When her husband abandons the family and Nan goes from taking tennis lessons to giving them to her contemporaries at the club, she doesn’t have the heart to tell Claude. Instead, she maintains a shining mirage of marriage and familial joy. In turn, Nan never mentions the lesions that erupt on Claude’s arms, and when loose talk forces him to close his salon and start doing hair out of his home, she follows him there. Ward’s light touch is perfect here. The story is sad, of course, but it’s not maudlin, and the respect that Claude and Nan show for one another’s fig-leaf lies is a tender, true kind of love. REVIEW Welcome to Lonelyville BY EMILY DEPRANG 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 17, 2009