It seems an oversimplification to say that Patricia Henley’s gorgeous new short story collection, Other Heartbreaks, will break your heart. But it will. It will break your heart again and again but you will come back to it, begging for more.
You will come back because this is what love it about. The thrill of attraction, the comfort of togetherness, the razor’s edge of disintegration. Love is, in fact, a heartbreak the second it begins because within that second what you know, but do not dare voice or even allow yourself to think, is that someday love will end. Either you will stop loving or the other person will stop loving or, worst of all, one (or both) of you will die.
Patricia Henley knows all of these things about love and these are the gifts that she generously offers us with her stories. And she gives us these gifts with great skill, with great humor, and with a great deal of empathy. She is, in short, a master.
Usually there are one (or sometimes two) stories within a collection that I feel I must push myself through; not so here. Each story was as skillfully wrought and humane as the next. The book is perfectly bookended with two examinations of family’s dealing with loss and.
The first story of the book, “Rocky Gap,” totally knocked me out. The setting is a family reunion at a campground. Innocuous enough, or is it? What we all know about family is that usually when we come together as adults there are many past wounds lingering in the shadows. Same here for this family which is coming together for the first time since the death of one of the sisters. At the same time that the the protagonist is mourning for her lost sister, she is also mourning for the loss of her partner as she watches their relationship disintegrate. And yet, through all of this sadness, there is beauty. One sees a way forward. No matter what, June will survive.
The final stories are a tale in triptych of the March family, within which there is an examination of the parents falling in and falling out of love all leading to the heart of the story, the daughter, Sophie, who has lost her young husband to random violence. Indeed, it is within Sophie story that I found the echo from many of the other stories and that is the biggest heartbreak–the one of love lost too soon. I was reminded so keenly of Gabriel and Gretta in the final scene of “The Dead” where he knows that he can never (and could never) replace the love his wife has lost. It is the same for Sophie; while her heart is opening up again, it may never again be as open as it was with Luis. As it is for many of the other characters within “Other Heartbreaks”–they may be heartbroken but they are not broken. They are not dead. They live and as long as they live, there is hope.