The Reviewed: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
The Reviewer: Judy Clement Wall
I read Robin Black’s short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, in part, because it was recommended to me by someone who doesn’t like short stories. She says short stories tend to end just as they’re getting interesting, just as she’s starting to care about the characters. “I want them to go on and they don’t,” she told me.
“I get that,” I said. “So, Robin Black’s stories didn’t make you feel that way?”
“Oh, no. They did,” she said. “I wanted them all to be longer. I wanted them all to be novels.”
“But you loved them.”
That’s just the kind of contradictory logic that attracts me, and after reading If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, I have to say I agree. Every story could have been longer. And every story was exactly the right length. Every character left me wishing I’d had more time with them, and yet, Black catches every character at their most interesting, their most vulnerable, their most searching. I knew at the end of each one’s story that we had spent the perfect amount of time together.
In the title story, a woman and her husband come to terms with the fact that she is dying of cancer while they deal with a new neighbor who doesn’t know or care anything about them. His insensitivity borders on bullying, and I cringed at how well I knew this man. I see him every day. I see him in myself. We live our lives grounded firmly in our own perspectives, as if we are not connected, as if we are not all in this life together, fragile inhabitants of a fragile world in which the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The title story in Robin Black’s book is essentially a list, raw and riveting and painfully human, of the things the dying woman would tell her neighbor if only she loved him, if only he cared.
That’s what all the stories are about, the bonds that connect us, the loneliness we struggle against, the ways in which we are here for each other and the heartbreaking ways in which we are not.
In an interview with Karen Russell at the end of the book, Robin Black says that she believes all her stories are coming-of-age stories, depicting moments in which “the balance between innocence and experience shifts.” I love that definition because it says that coming-of-age stories happen all the time, and are by no means confined to adolescents and teenagers.
In “Guide,” one of my favorite stories in the book, a father takes his blind, college-bound daughter to get her first guide dog. Though his daughter is certainly “coming of age,” the story belongs to him, as he comes to terms with both her frailty and her strength, and the reality of how drastically different his own life will be once she’s gone. As with all of Robin Black’s stories, my description doesn’t do it justice; it’s more complicated than I’ve indicated here. In a tight, beautifully woven story, she explores the tenuous nature of our relationships, held together by what isn’t explicitly spoken, by glances, by gestures, and our capacity as parents to love ferociously, so hard it hurts, to hold fast even as we let go.
It is a never-ending process for humans, this business of holding on and letting go. In “The History of the World,” a 65-year-old woman, forced to let go of a marriage, and to some degree an identity, goes on vacation with her twin brother to Italy, where the past and the present collide tragically, irreversibly, and in the ruins, a future is created. The ending is beautiful, one of the most perfect I’ve ever read, which, of course, means I can’t tell you about it.
My copy of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is dog-eared and highlighted. There are sticky notes everywhere. As a writer, I found myself again and again in awe of Robin Black’s ability to so precisely convey emotion. Everything is a surprise, and nothing is surprising because her characters are us, and they’re doing what we all do, coming of age again and again, stumbling into and out of fleeting moments of clarity and undeniable grace.
Judy Clement Wall is restless, insatiably curious and prone to believing impossible things. You can find her here.