Michelle Latiolais’s short story collection Widow came to me on loan with a stack of other recommended books. I was in need of a new book and open to suggestions. Of the stack of books–two novels and the story collection–I immediately gravitated to Widow. I am an avid short story consumer after all. The titular story opens the collection and sets the tone for the rest of the book. A seemingly mundane visit to the gynecologist becomes a difficult feat as the unnamed widow contemplates the daily struggles of life after the death of her husband. The widow stories interweave throughout the collection, balancing other stories of relationships and brief encounters.
The highlight of the collection are the widow stories, particularly “Hoarding.” Michelle has a knack for honing in on the smallest details of everyday life and pointing out their absurdities following a tragedy. In “Hoarding,” the unnamed widow this time struggles with stocking her pantry with enough supplies to survive a nuclear attack. As she focuses on having things, she realizes she lacks people in her life. She convinces herself that with enough stuff–good food and expensive wine–she will lure company into her lonely life. While the other stories in the collection were fine if forgettable, I connected the most with the widow stories. Having recently lost a loved one, the idea of readjusting to “normal” life and the way such common occurrences as going to the doctor or shopping for groceries becomes increasingly difficult resonated with me.
Once I finished Widow, I moved on to Michelle’s latest novel A Proper Knowledge. This story follows Luke, a doctor who specializes in treating autistic children, who grieves over the loss of his possibly autistic sister twenty years before the events of the novel. This story possesses the same qualities for me as did Widow–when the story is on, following Luke’s interactions with the many children he treats, it’s really on and I’m engulfed in it, but when it follows other story lines like Luke’s desire to date a floral artist, I feel impatient for it to return to the “good stuff.” I grew bored with the romantic sub-plot, especially because the look into treating autistic children was so fascinating that everything else paled in comparison. Perhaps this is why I appreciate Widow more than A Proper Knowledge–I can skip right to the best stories. Perhaps this is one of my overall arguments for why story collections are better than novels.
Falling in love with Michelle’s stories, I can’t help but wonder why she hasn’t reached the level of acclaim and recognition as Alice Munro and Mary Gaitskill, my two favorite female short story writers. Michelle reminds me that sometimes the literary landscape, or rather the publishing landscape, can at times be so obvious and others profoundly complicated. Why out of two writers with seemingly equal talent does one rise to international fame when the other does not? I don’t know if I’ll ever understand the intricacies of literary tastes and the politics of the publishing industry, but I will take comfort in knowing that Michelle Latiolais and her stories that helped me understand my own grief exist in the world, and I was lucky enough to encounter them.