Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

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Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Seven first-person stories about desire versus contentment and the things that keep people together or drive them apart. The title story is a knockout.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Text Publishing Company
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781922182319

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The first story in Bobcat is the title story, and this alone is worth the price of admission. Plaster it with prizes, put it in anthologies; it deserves every accolade it can get. However, the last story echoes the first, and the five tales in between are strangely repetitive, most with Midwestern North American narrators and 1980s university settings. Moreover, all seven are in the first-person; I would have appreciated more variety of perspective.

First things first, though: the excellent 'Bobcat.' The narrator is a pregnant city lawyer preparing for a dinner party with friends. She and her husband are serving the sort of dishes you might find in a 1970s Delia cookbook: a terrine, a roast and a trifle. The old-fashioned fare contrasts perfectly with the unorthodox relationships around the table: two of the women are about to lose their husbands to mistresses.

The story gets its title from Susan, another of the party guests, who had a peculiar experience on a mountain pass in Nepal. A bobcat mauled her arm (now amputated), but before it struck, Susan remembers it 'placing his paw on her shoulder as if to say, politely, Hello?' She describes it almost like a spiritual communion. The bobcat is a symbol of everything that's lying in wait for us; some of these shocks may be blessings in disguise, but to start with they will be painful – and that is certainly true of the dying marriages at the story's core.

It's an almost impossibly rich story and kept reminding me of various precedents: Larry's Party by Carol Shields, a novel that centres on a disastrous dinner party; Between a Rock and a Hard Place (later renamed 128 Hours after the film), Aron Ralston's memoir of having to cut off his own arm when stuck in a rock crevice; and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman's non-fiction account of a Laotian Hmong family's beliefs and how they intersect with Western medicine (the narrator is defending a Hmong man who denied his wife medical treatment based on his religion).

In 'The Banks of the Vistula', Margaret, a student at a Lutheran college in Minnesota, plagiarizes her first linguistics essay and inadvertently convinces her Polish professor that she's a Soviet propagandist. The next story, 'Slatland', reuses multiple elements: the Scandinavian Midwestern milieu (Saskatchewan this time), the Eastern European references, and the key relationship with a professor. The narrator is even named Margit, all too similar. Margit meets with a psychiatrist at her father's college twice, once to help her deal with her parents' divorce when she falls into depression at age 11, and then 20 years later to help her figure out whether her Romanian fiancé is cheating on her.

'Min' is one of the more unusual stories. Sarah Johnson meets Min Leung in 1989, during a sexual harassment hearing at their college. They quickly become friends and she accompanies him back to Hong Kong for the summer break. Min's father, Albert, is responsible for repatriating the Vietnamese refugees in the territory. He gives Sarah an unusual job for the summer: she is to choose Min's wife from hundreds of applicants. Comparing her selection process to that of Min's grandmother as she was choosing Albert's wife, Sarah sees that her predecessor suggested a formula of 'two-thirds contentment, one-third desire'. That's good shorthand for the collection as a whole, I think; Lee acknowledges that 'there's a lot that's lousy' in this life, but plenty to love, too.

'World Party' again prioritises a university hearing, but this time the narrator is a history professor who assigns Ovid and worries about her autistic son's performance in his Quaker school. 'Fialta' might be based loosely on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. It's the only story with a male narrator. He is one of six apprentices the famous architect Stadbakken takes on at his Wisconsin workshop, Fialta. It seems like a promising setup, but the story doesn't really go anywhere; it only shows various love triangles between the apprentices.

The final tale, 'Settlers', returns to the East Coast setting of the title story and sees a pregnant woman working on a television pilot about Wonder Woman. She learns that no one's perfect and you can't rely on heroes, and as her circle of three odd couples dwells on the Starr Report, she wonders what keeps people together nowadays.

There's some very nice writing here, including striking bird metaphors. My favourite lines were from 'Min': 'All around us rose small, jagged mountains. In the dark they looked alive, like giant blackbirds, staring down at their one treasure – the little sapphire bay.' However, overall I found the stories repetitive, and couldn't decide where some of them were going. When Lee gets it right, though, as with 'Bobcat,' the results are stunning.

Further reading suggestion: A few of our favourite short story collections are Travelling Light by Tove Jansson, Dear Life by Alice Munro and Married Love by Tessa Hadley.

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