Marianne Gingher's short story collection, "Teen Angel," is being pitched by its publisher to both an adult and a young adult audience. This is understandable since, as the title suggests, the collection is largely made up of stories about young characters learning about life through the sweet but inevitably painful experience of first love. While the territory is potentially familiar, at her best, the author possesses real empathy and a sharp eye for details.
In "The Magic Circle," a boy named Dobie tries to understand sexuality and love by using his parents' marriage as a model: "He remembered the magic circle his parents had stood in when he was much younger. Nobody ever talked about the magic circle; it just was, wordless and theirs. His father would arrive home from work and hurry into the kitchen where his mother was cooking. Then he embraced and kissed her, enfolding her in a way that made her seem frail and reckless."
Dobie, like all of the characters in these stories, is intensely likable, and the author has clearly tapped into the vulnerability that often goes hand-in-hand with love. This vulnerability occasionally weakens the collection, however, giving some of the stories a certain homogeneity. It may be true that in life, we all act equally fragile and moony when we're learning about the complexities of love, but in fiction, this behavior needs to be looked at from many different angles, rendered new every time.
Interestingly, it is the adults in these stories who really come alive. This is especially true in the title story, which is also the best story of the collection. Mrs. Reece, the mother of the narrator's best friend, often accompanies the girls on evenings out: "And what a peculiar comfort to have her along, holding up her own compact and giggling alongside us. Whenever she lit a cigarette, the match illumined her plump, girlish face. In the pinkish gold flare, she looked 15 herself: mischievous, sly. . . . She seemed at deep peace with whatever disappointments she'd suffered."
Again, it's true that these details are being shown to us through the perceptions of the young narrator, but this in itself only highlights the tricky paradox that arises whenever adults write for young adults. J. D. Salinger outsmarted this paradox by putting most of the weight of "The Catcher in the Rye" into the voice of Holden Caulfield, a voice more memorable than the plot of the book.
Like Salinger, Gingher is a gifted, original writer whose images are often on-target and startling. In "The Hummingbird Kimono," a woman finds the title object in a thrift shop: "Their hands tangled in a dive for the kimono. It was made of old, yellow Chinese silk. Dozens of tiny green and ruby-colored birds flocked across the shoulders. She crushed one sleeve to her chest while he held tight to the other. They heard the dry putter of tearing silk."
This is wonderful writing, notable for its subtlety and clarity. The entire collection in fact is filled with such observations. In "Camouflage," a woman gives birth, and the doctor "lay the child casually on Mary's chest as if Mary were a shelf. Instinctively, she touched the top of the baby's sticky head and felt life beating furiously: the eager, steamy warmth of it. . . ."
What seems to keep a few of these stories from really soaring is the author's awareness of her dual audience. A few too many insights seem designed to telegraph blunt messages to a young adult reader. Thus, "Perhaps I truly began to enter womanhood the moment I both understood and forgave that paradox."
Still, there is much to savor in "Teen Angel." Gingher is a keen observer of the wistful pleasures of love, and, contrary to the collection's sub-title, that includes love between older people, too.