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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King: A rich and involving collection

Book review: Hope and hard-earned lessons from the author of Writers & Lovers

Five Tuesdays in Winter
Author: Lily King
ISBN-13: 978-1529086478
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

Lily King’s most recent novel, Writers & Lovers, was a New York Times bestseller and a critical success, bringing this underrated American writer to the attention of the masses on both sides of the Atlantic. Its fine qualities – a wry and moving exploration of writing and relationships – are in abundance in her first collection of short stories. Thematically similar, and written in the same stylish, limpid prose, the 10 stories offer raw yet hopeful depictions of the common man.

The range of characters across Five Tuesdays in Winter is impressive. There's a cantankerous nonagenarian visiting his granddaughter in hospital. A widowed mother in Germany trying to get herself and her teenage daughter through their grief. A 14-year-old from an unhappy home who becomes a live-in babysitter for a rich family over the course of a hot, lethargic summer.

The babysitter is Carol, the narrator of opening story Creature, an intense coming-of-age tale that nails the blurring realities of teenage life, that liminal space between childhood and maturity: “It was a skill of mine, splitting myself in half, pretending to be childish and oblivious while sifting through adult exchanges with the focus and discrimination of a forensic detective.”

Carol – renamed Cara by the comical matriarch Mrs Pike – falls for the children’s married uncle Hugh, a Gatsbyesque creation who is hiding problems of his own. King sets out her stall in this story: these are troubled individuals who will try just about anything to scrape through.

These stories are full of pivotal moments of change. The circumstances are often brutal, the learnings hard-earned, but the overall feeling is one of hope

The short story form suits King's incisive, unshowy style, which recalls contemporaries such as Ann Patchett, Tessa Hadley and fellow Maine resident, Elizabeth Strout. Like these authors, King has an acclaimed back catalogue to her name, which includes The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher and Euphoria, winner of the Kirkus Prize, the New England Book Award for Fiction, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. King is also the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and has twice won both the Maine Fiction Award and the New England Book Award.

Motifs in her fiction include infidelity, divorces, drunk or absentee parents, and the resilience of those who survive the turmoil. These stories are full of pivotal moments of change. The circumstances are often brutal, the learnings hard-earned, but the overall feeling is one of hope.

In the title story, a lonely bookseller, Mitchell, falls for one of his employees. Both characters feel achingly real in the bumbling, tender way they try to connect: "She was the type who could not take a compliment. If he told her she looked nice, she'd give the reason instead of saying thank you." There is in the details (the arrival of Mitchell's daughter's first period on the couple's first date), and in the will-they-won't-they normality of the quest, more than a hint of the Baltimore writer Anne Tyler.

King's central concerns – the writing life, the difficult childhood, the demands of motherhood – all coalesce in one surreal and brilliant piece that involves, among other things, cocktails at 10 in the morning

When in the Dordogne sees an isolated teenage boy, the youngest of a large family (“the martini baby, conceived, I’m sure, after one too many in late July of 1971”), learn to inhabit his life from the example of two older boys. Here and in the chilling Hotel Seattle are difficulties with sexuality, closet teenagers who are only able to come out to family and friends when they feel safe. King reminds us, particularly in the latter story, that this safety is precarious, even in so-called modern times.

The stories take place in a variety of settings, from west coast America to monied Maineto a seaside town in northern Germany. Here, a mother tries desperately to reconnect with a bereaved and angry teenage daughter: “Adults hid their pain, their fears, their failure, but adolescents hid their happiness, as if to reveal it would risk its loss.” Insights like these appear frequently, almost nonchalantly, over the course of the collection, often using humour to expose the gritty realities underpinning so many of the situations.

A case in point is the delicately woven Timeline, which gives a snapshot of multiple lives. When the narrator, a writer, moves in with her brother Wes and his erratic girlfriend Mandy, she’s warned not to do or say certain things for fear of setting the latter off: “Just don’t talk about Ethan Frome . . . It’s a thing of hers.” Played for comedy for most of the story, a short, stunning line turns things around: “Wes told me later her father had kneecapped her with her brother’s baseball bat.”

The final story, The Man at the Door, is one of the strongest. King’s central concerns – the writing life, the difficult childhood, the demands of motherhood – all coalesce in one surreal and brilliant piece that involves, among other things, cocktails at 10 in the morning. A fitting end to a collection that is rich, involving and endlessly interesting.