In the final story in this stunning collection, Drew is a young male character whose parents ran a family medical practice in rural Maine. He recalls that, in spite of having a very broad circle of friends, his parents only rarely invited anyone over for a get-together: “Only occasionally did they host their own parties, having grown weary of the occasional girl, the uninvited guest who would come back, his mother having to usher them off to her study, away from all the celebrants, her tone one of forced politeness, ‘If I’d known you were coming –.’ Drew was still a boy then, but he’d understood those girls, the look on their faces, how they wanted something already gone.”
Kate Milliken’s If I’d Known You Were Coming is a gallery of uninvited girls and women who have to muster tremendous forces of will to battle demons within and without. The initial entry, A Matter of Time, establishes the chilling topos straight away. In it, Lorrie is married to a Hollywood show business wannabe, and she’s desperate to make a go of things. When a visiting celebrity producer takes an unnatural interest in her five year-old daughter, Caroline, her reaction – the opposite of that of a protective mother, from what we can tell – sets the tone.
The landscape remains bleak when we glimpse Caroline years later, on her sixteenth birthday. In The Whole World Caroline’s behavior confirms the abuse earlier in life. In Everything Looks Beautiful a woman cannot bring herself to make love to her husband, who is just recovered from a double amputation. She flirts with the gardening help instead. Through a couple of snippets, and interim stories of Caroline, the theme continues: women struggling to find the tools to cope with disintegrating lives. But then Ms. Milliken concludes with Inheritance, which brings us back finally to Caroline. At the end, the author introduces a surprise, a faint note of hope for our splintered, near-hopeless girl.
Ms. Milliken’s heroines are real, sometimes excruciatingly so. Their stories are just as real, and the events she hints at are horrifyingly common in life. These stories bring the emotional reality of these facts home with full force. They have a bleak emotional palette, but the author has crafted them so artfully, it’s hard to see how they could be done any better.