Though each segment could be read as a standalone, each is So Much a Part of the Landscape that Polly Dugan’s work is best read all-in-a-burst.
But nor are the links as subtle as in, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, in which the tales cross hundreds of years but revolve around the act of reading.
So Much a Part of You focuses on a core group of characters, the concerns of the collection swelling outwards like ripples in a pond, but with the core remaining distinct.
In fact, the only gap appears to be between the first story, which focuses on a single character from an earlier generation, and the remainder of the tales which concentrate on interconnected contemporary characters.
But this gap is actually not a gap and here is where the reader’s trust is required; the circle is cinched with the final story, in a quietly satisfying “ahhh” moment, with a subtle thematic link that could not have been predicted but which is surprisingly satisfying.
The majority of the stories are preoccupied with relationships, with the dramatic ebb and flow of affections. The characters are frequently young (the youngest is in the first tale) and struggling with issues of identity, or somewhat older but facing circumstances which challenge aspects of their identity which once seemed immovable.
The prose is straightforward and the use of figurative language is minimal. The stories are scenic, set out with a journalist’s attention to detail, with only the occasional simile to add to the reader’s sensory experience of characters’ key realizations.
“He smells like booze, something harder beneath the beer. She knows it well. And more – laundry detergent, shampoo, and himself. His sunny, earthy smell of boy makes her feel empty and reckless. His scent is like a plateful of something she wants to cut up and shovel in by the forkful until she’s stuffed.”
Polly Dugan makes deft use of detail from the 80’s music references, to sobbing in the theatre during “Against All Odds”, the radio in Chris’ mother’s car playing Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, the pearls against Audrrey’s clavicle, ad the Olivers’ farm at the end of a dirt road lane with soybean fields on both sides.
The majority of the stories are narrated by a female character, and the girls and women in the collection behave credibly (not always likeably, but believably); they are sometimes flimsy and fuzzy, losing themselves in the pursuit of a romantic relationship, and sometimes determinedly independent.
“By their last night together, Caitlin thought she loved him. She felt like a rock he’d taken and carved something out of. She was a different person from the one she’d been a week ago.”
The male characters’ vulnerabilities are also explored, and the storyteller’s voice is consistent throughout, so that a sense of unity in the collection is maintained, despite the regular shifts in character and perspective and, as the collection proceeds, time.
As the years pass, the characters’ preoccupations grow more complex, reflecting a variety of experiences (often revolving around a loss or a perceived loss). “He feels the fatigue of having aged, as though he has undergone a crash course in the business of growing older.”
Polly Dugan’s style is gently probing; singly, the stories in So Much a Part of You might not have the same emotional resonance with readers but, in combination, the characters take hold.
Is this collection on your stack? Or, do you have a favourite collection of linked stories?