A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy while struggling with her relationship with her own parents; a marine biologist who desperately wishes to become a fish; an older woman bidding her beloved country inn farewell; a young mother grieving the loss of her youngest son; wives contemplating the possible ends of their marriages; a little girl desperate to learn how to ride a bicycle to please her institutionalized father: these are some of the characters in Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s exquisite book of short stories, Contents Under Pressure*.
In each of the eleven stories that make up this slim volume, Ms. Campbell balances precise description with unspoken tension; the result is stories that are spellbinding in their realism.
In “Depth Perception,” from which the collection’s title phrase is drawn, a young woman struggles to find the right time to tell her partner that she is unexpectedly pregnant; meanwhile, her adoptive parents’ marriage is a quiet shambles. “Lily operated like a seismograph sensing the shifting plates beneath the surface of her parents’ relationship,” Ms. Campbell writes.
Fractured or troubled marriages appear in several other stores, like “Peripheral Vision,” in which a couple dresses as Jack and Jackie Kennedy for a Washington, DC Halloween party. Behind her mask, Meg wonders if she should leave her husband, and an encounter with a fortune teller doesn’t clarify matters.
The sense of place is strong in all stories; some are set in Washington, others in a small Pennsylvania town in the foothills of the Alleghenies. One of my favorites is “Shade Gardening,” set in Washington in 1962. A young couple, devastated by the death of their young son but holding their family together for the sake of their other child moves into an unusual house just before the start of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s a tender but unflinching portrait of a woman’s grief and resiliency.
Ms. Campbell’s main characters are women and girls from a range of social classes, backgrounds, and ages; I was delighted by the freshness of each story, the graceful writing that makes storytelling look easy, but is in fact the hallmark of a very gifted author. This collection is highly recommended.
I also recommend this gorgeous essay by Ellen Prentiss Campbell, “Creative Defiance,” at Fiction Writers Review.
*I received a copy of this book from the author for review purposes, which in no way affected the content of my review.