At Home Anywhere by Mary Hoffman
Final Verdict: 3.50 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
Mary Hoffman’s At Home Anywhere is a surprising collection of short stories about the American experience, post-9/11. In “Flat Earth Society,” we meet a hard-working man who just happens to be out of work, exhausted and enraged by his situation. He does the responsible thing by seeking help while continuing to work, but ultimately the pressure – and a bit of ethnocentrism-leads him to a desperate act of violence. The following story, “Moths,” is a touching tale about our responsibility for the ones we love, even after they have long exited our day-to-day lives. It also relates the difficulties, complications, and excitement one encounters when immersed within another culture– learning new rules and protocol, learning to understand and respect new roles and etiquette. “At Home Anywhere,” the third story in the collection, is perhaps the most current and relevant. It recounts the story of a white man –husband and father- living in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attacks. The reader watches as he rides the train home from work each day, getting off one station beyond his actual exit so he can walk through the more culturally rich and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. He befriends a Pakistani shop owner and his two sons, regularly visiting their store and making small, random purchases (including an “ethnic” soap which, his wife explains, turns out to be Palmolive). After the attack on the city, the man’s visits stop, suddenly, and he begins to feel paranoid about the items he’s bought – what would happen if anyone ever found them? What would happen if he goes back to the store – is it under surveillance? Would he be questioned? The shock, paranoia, and fear of the time and the stressors it placed on cultural relations in America are well-delivered. The final story, “Felix and Adauctus,” is a life story that takes on many topics, from mental health and isolation, to homosexuality, religion, and relationships. After very nearly being abused by a priest when he was a boy, the main character, Paul, grows to respect that priest – his strength and conviction. He recognized in that experience the power of temptation, and also the power of belief and self-control.
3 – Characters well developed
The characters in all four of these stories are strong – well-developed, independent, and interesting to watch. The best wrought of the bunch are those in “Felix and Adauctus” and “Moths.” In the former, there is a trio of characters who interact throughout the majority of the story, and their personalities (calm and steady, direct and commanding, unbalanced and manic) create fascinating, realistic, and genuine moments. Interaction with characters on the periphery as well, such as those described at a local restaurant or a friend of the primary homeowner, Sonia, add to the varying moods of the story and oftentimes provide a “real life relief” from the rather intense microcosmic interactions of the trio. In the latter story, “Moths,” there is are a bevy of captivating characters, from students in an art studio, to their teacher who is dealing with the reintroduction of her ex-husband into her life, to that ex-husband himself, who is suffering from what appears to be early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. There are also flashbacks to different countries, where the reader witnesses the main character interacting with people of another race and class, and their presence adds another layer of solemnity and interest to the story.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
Hoffman certainly has a way with words. Her use of language and dialogue propel the story forward evenly and smoothly, so the pages turn with ease. The entire book is 114 pages long and it can be read in one day without causing the reader to feel overburdened, but also leaving one with a sense of satisfaction and substance upon completion. It is evident that Hoffman is “honing her craft” – which is to say, she has real talent and ability, but might still be working to master certain elements. The lead-ins and –outs of dialogue, for instance, are not always as subtle as they could be, and narrative voice sometimes overshadows the scenes. Still, in total, the stories each work well as stand-alone pieces and they certainly fit together in this collection. The dialogue is believable and the moral didactics are present without being overbearing. Hoffman’s prose is not necessarily unique, but there is a bold and daring element to it which is enjoyable and refreshing, and which calls to mind the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Ambrose Bierce.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What is most interesting and powerful about each of these stories and about the collection itself, is what they have to say about human nature. Hoffman is clearly an observant, reflective person. She has taken her observations of American life and created stories to help the rest of us see and understand, too: Whether it be racism or nationalism, mental instability or emotional turmoil, relationship-making or relationship-breaking, Hoffman exposes it all – honestly, unsparingly. Perhaps the best reason to pick up this collection is not for the engaging prose or the interesting characters, but for the self-reflection Hoffman induces – for the questions one asks himself when faced with these situations: How do I feel about this? What would I do in this situation? Have I been there before, too?
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+, Adult
Interest: American History, American Cultural Studies, Socioeconomics, Post-9/11
*Note: A copy of this book was provided by New Rivers Press for review at RBR.net. No monetary or other compensation is ever received by RBR.net for positive reviews or exposure on RBR.net.