"My Escapee," a short story collection by Corinna Vallianatos is, like most short story collections, difficult to characterize in general terms. Short stories are unique, even when the same writer creates them. But most writers of short stories do have recurrent preoccupations and Vallianatos is no different.
Several stories in this collection hinge on nostalgia, or simply memory. There's an underlying assumption that what is happening now (as in the title story) isn't as important as what happened a long time ago.
All the stories in the collection reflect the perceptions of women, be they old, middle-aged, or young, even very young. One of the stories, "Examination," concerns a school girl's experience of being excluded from a funeral; her parents apparently don't think she's old enough to face such a thing. Instead, she goes to school and is pulled out of class to be subjected to an odd assessment of whether she's smart enough to be transferred to a school for the gifted. It turns out that she's smart enough to flee the assessment and certainly smart enough to be able to go to a funeral and learn more there than at any school, a normal one or one for the gifted.
Being excluded, being lonely, having a sense of disconnectedness…these are Vallianatos's additonal themes, and they often show up in male/female relationships wherein the female lets herself in for intimacy, even marriage, with a male who isn't her ideal, not even close.
In two stories, "Posthumous Fragments of Veronica Penn" and "Privations," Vallianatos pursues the mosaic approach to story-telling perhaps best exemplified by William Gass's masterpiece, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." These two stories are full of good writing, vivid images, and that sense of disconnectedness I mentioned above; it is built into the stories formally and underscored by the somewhat muffled and distant sense of self experienced by the protagonists.
There are a few stories in this collection that for me, at least, aren't successful. "Celebrants," revolving around college students, their rituals and relationships, is as uninteresting as college students, their rituals and relationships often are--they're our society's special class of babies, permitted to regress, overindulge, play-act, and waste more time mooning around than studying. Another story, the final one, "A Civilizing Effect," focuses on a woman in her mid-fifties who just doesn't know who she is anymore. That can be a piquant topic. But there's no piquancy here, and the denoument is somewhat more slapstick than touching.
I'd recommend reading this collection if you like reading short stories. There are some wonderful moments, there are some wonderful images, and there's generally a good sense of proportion, exploring but not overtaxing the short story form.
"My Escapee" won the "Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction." Most university presses and many independent presses run such prize competitions. They receive 500-1000 submissions, winnow them down, and somehow come up with a winner. I imagine there's a revenue element here: these competitions typically carry $25 entry fees.
But Grace Paley was really a special short story writer, and a prize bearing her name does make me smile. I read her work and spent an afternoon with her once. She talked and thought exactly in line with her idiosyncratic writing. All her stories had a large voice and compelling chararacterizations. Stylistically, she was tart, quick, and funny. So if you haven't read Grace Paley, or perhaps haven't even heard of her, take a look at her short stories while you're considering "My Escapee."
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