In Ann Harleman's remarkable debut collection, men and women of extraordinary passions look for and sometimes find the hidden heart of ordinary life. Testing themselves and each other, they search for ways to connect. "Understanding," says the troubled voyeur-narrator of "Imaginary Colors," "is the booby prize"; these characters go for experience. Reckless explorers of inner space, they try the limits of their lives.
A gravely ill woman seeks forgiveness from her grown-up daughters for an adulterous past which she does not really regret. A boy watches anxiously—and enviously—while his brother flaunts an interracial love affair in front of their dangerous father. In strike-torn Warsaw during the rise of Solidarity, an American professor and his Polish housekeeper reach toward each other from their respective cages of loneliness. A girl's determined pursuit of her first sexual experience brings her more, and less, than she bargained for.
Harleman combines a clear eye with a generous heart, revealing her characters-misguided, selfish, loving, brave—through a compassionate, often humorous probing of their inner and outer worlds. In "It Was Humdrum" a system analyst hires a detective to find the mother who left him as an infant, while his young wife leaves him daily for afternoon trysts with her Puerto Rican lover. A woman assaulted by a teenage gang escapes physically unharmed but forever changed. The past overtakes a woman who has married for love, not of her husband, but of his small daughter. A greeting card poet pursued by stereotyped images of happiness flees from the woman he loves and the brother he never knew he had.
The supple language of these twelve stories—wise, funny, delighting in the sensuous—makes us feel the beauty and terror of a fully lived life. Harleman's characters, whether they succeed or fail, show us the way to a deeper exploration of our own lives.
"Ann Harleman writes about the mystery of attachments, desire, and separations with passionate accuracy. In her stories, love and solitude are so concentrated that they give off light, and the stories' images—the bare feet of a baby raised by a single father or the unforgettable eyes of a car-rocking adolescent—are like doorways through which we can glimpse the characters' futures and their pasts. These stories have a beautiful, warm intelligence, a passion to get things right."—Charles Baxter
"This impressive collection of 12 stories, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, captures finely tuned moments of contemporary family life, bringing a new texture to familiar themes. The charm is that they never resort to self-pity; their heroism lies in an acceptance of life, a stiff-upper-lipped persistence in the face of uncertainty…Harleman has a rich, melancholy voice that shows remarkable control and summons meticulous detail in stories that are poignant and assured."—Publishers Weekly
"It is easy to understand why Ann Harleman has won a University of Iowa short fiction award for this first collection of stories. She is a writer of astonishing clarity and depth, a conjurer of searing images and emotional truths that stay with her readers long after they have closed the covers on Happiness…Passion, jealousy, loss, Happiness—it's all here, beautifully so, with poetry on every page."—Boston Globe
"Harleman's precise and evocative language can depict complex human relationships in a simple scene of chopping wood—or subtly illuminate the peril of romance in a claustrophobic family drama."—New York Times Book Review