Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE: STORIES
By Megan Mayhew Bergman 
Scribner. 240 pp. $24.00. 
 
According to her biography, Megan Mayhew Bergman, “grew up in North Carolina” and “lives in Vermont with her veterinarian husband, two daughters and several animals.” Thus, it is not surprising that the stories in her excellent debut collection include young mothers, plenty of animals, and mostly East Coast settings. Many of the stories explore the connection between humans, animals and the natural environment. Most take place in rural settings or small towns; Raleigh and Washington, DC are two exceptions. (As much as I adore New York, I must say it was a pleasure to read a full twelve stories with nary a mention of Brooklyn or Manhattan.) In part because of these settings, the collection feels very “quiet,” while at the same time not lacking tension and emotion. 
In the opening story, “Housewifely Arts,” a woman and her young son travel to a roadside zoo in search of an African Grey parrot that used to belong to the her mother. The parrot could imitate the mother’s speech and the young woman longs to “hear” her mother again. What could easily be a story of mourning that has been told before becomes something much more. It is not surprising that it was selected to appear in the 2011 Best American Short Stories.

Characters in other forms of “mourning” appear in other stories. In one a young woman can barely forgive herself for an accident that nearly killed her dog.  In another a teen girl knows her mother will soon die of cancer. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” a young woman wrestles with a biological desire to be a mother and commitment she has made to her boyfriend not to have children, for environmental reasons. In this case, she mourns for the loss of part of her life, no matter which decision she makes.  The remarkable thing is that, despite all of this “sadness,” the collection does not feel heavy. The stories are never emotionally manipulative. Bergman’s characters find contentment in their lives, even if they do not always find happy endings.

Amidst these stories of struggle come stories of discovery or hopes of discovery. In one story a veterinarian gives his pregnant wife an ultrasound in the vet office because he missed the last OB appointment. (Bergman said in an interview that this story was based on personal experience.) In the title story, a bird enthusiast goes searching for a woodpecker which is probably extinct, but he believes could still be lingering in a swamp. The characters in these two stories retain an innocent, optimistic view of the world, even when, they too, are confronted with obstacles.

Upon reading some excellent short stories (stand alone and collections), I often want nothing more than to see what the author can do in the longer form of a novel. In the case of Bergman, I want nothing more than to read more of her compact, crystalline prose in the short story form. In her collection, Bergman exposes the fragility of life and relationships while affirming the strength that lies within everyone. These stories are never obtuse. In fact, Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a short story collection for anyone who says, “I don’t like short stories.” Read the opening story, and try not to read more. Whether in short or long form, I hope we hear from Megan Mayhew Bergman again soon.

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