She, the new short story collection from Michelle Latiolais, has a way of sneaking up on you. I have to admit that when I began reading the book I thought I had picked up a short novel about a runaway teenager fleeing to Los Angeles to escape her mentally abusive father. It was only three or four segments into the book that I realized that I was reading a book of short stories exploring diverse facets of life in that city. It is as if Los Angles is the main character in She, not the runaway we meet in the book’s initial pages.
But, as it turns out, my initial impression of She was not completely wrong because Latiolais has so cleverly constructed the collection that, taken as a whole, it does read very much like a novel. Every other story in the collection shares the same title, "She," each of these following the young runaway's progress after she escapes Needles with a little help from a sympathetic bus driver and a few of her fellow passengers. The in-between stories, each individually titled, introduce other Los Angles residents, most of them struggling just as hard as the runaway to make a life for themselves in the big city. Some of these characters will cross paths with the girl (aka “She”), others will not.
Read as a novel, She is a rather optimistic take on one girl's efforts to break free from the stifling life her harshly religious father is determined she will live. With some encouragement from her grandmother (who dies before the girl runs away), the girl finds the courage to strike out on her own for a place where she can become the person she wants to be - not the one her father wants her to be. And with the help of a few sympathetic souls, who in reality are struggling just as hard as she is to figure out who they are, she just might manage to do it.
But there are also some outstanding stand-alone short stories in She, stories that serve to illuminate the dangers and quirks of this new world our young runaway has entered. Among my favorites is one titled "Gas" in which a young man flirts his way into the good graces of a long-legged beauty at an adjoining gas pump successfully enough to convince her to join him for a cup of coffee at the cafe across the street - with tragic consequences for the woman. Another favorite, "Parking," features the empathetic botanist who makes her living by almost perfectly replicating real flowers as cake decorations for a famous pastry chef who takes full credit for her key contribution to his expensive cakes.
Even one of the "She" stories, taken on its own, will stay with me for a long time. In this one, the girl comes across an old lady sitting all alone at a bus stop shelter. When the old lady invites the runaway to sit beside her, the girl, who can barely stand the old woman's odor, is terrified by the thought that if she doesn't find a place to stay soon she will end up smelling as bad as the woman she can barely tolerate. I'm still taken with the image of that old woman and the portable paperback library she kept inside the wheeled-suitcase she was dragging around with her - and how willing she was to share her precious books with a stranger.
She is a dark, moody look at a city of extremes, one in which some live almost unbelievable lives of luxury while others live day-to-day on the city's dirty streets. And none of them seem particularly happy to be where they are.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)