Carole Glasser Langille inhabits both men and women with casual assurance. Ambassador opens her debut story collection with adult son Robbie being plied with a home-cooked meal in his mother's kitchen. She wants a condition report on his father, the growly, cheating husband she may be willing to take back.
Robbie's own spousal issues complicate the mix. His first-person voice is a window on two worlds: his own simmering and groping, and his mother's equally needy but carefully structured, shored up by homespun insights. She advises Robbie on his marriage woes: "Sometimes the details of happiness aren't much different from the details of unhappiness." Then we learn the details of Robbie's secret bid to give happiness an edge. Langille leaves enough unsaid to pleasingly goad the reader's imagination.
Sisters is a twisting journey into the wind-down of a relationship and the accompanying loss of a friend. At 39, Lindsey can't help thinking that her habitual weekend visits with John - by now listless and sexless - are a harbinger of what awaits her in mid-life. Ballet lessons have opened a fresh sense of self to her, but then a chance encounter sours her affirming friendship with a fellow dancer. Langille's characters are carefully wrought, though a notable lapse is her insertion of a budding writing career for Lindsey. Her first public reading sings with a writerly self-regard that, while convincing, is irrelevant to the story's progress.
Monhegan Island is a standout. A young woman recalls her time living as a teenager with friends when her parents moved temporarily to England. As she came to know the family, tensions were revealed and a friendship launched. A portrait of emotional alliances and fractures, the story movingly explores loves and rivalries and the fragile nature of what we call home.
In Visiting Seymour, a woman volunteer at a hospital feels growing affection for a lonely elderly man who's gravely ill. Hoping to ease Seymour's decline, Goldie begins mothering him with gifts of home-made challah, gefilte fish and chicken soup with matzoh balls. The menu items and Yiddish expressions (including "oy vey") perhaps feel a touch too obvious here. When Goldie returns from a few weeks' absence to an alarmingly thin Seymour, the story veers disappointingly into sentiment.
My Mother and My Neighbour presents a woman caring for her disabled mother in a farmhouse by the ocean. This story stealthily leads the reader astray, then delivers the truth late, with deft timing. A less successful tale opens with a pregnant young wife reeling from shock at the murder of her husband by a street gang. Covering six years in nine pages, the story seems hardly to do justice to the impact of the tragedy.
Langille is often a precise observer, her images sharp, grounded in a straight-up prose style that avoids lyrical patina. "Some days the wind brushed the surface of the ocean lightly, as if ripples were covered in charcoal-blue coal dust and the wind was raking the dust over and over to one side." The ocean watcher here is a boy of 15 in the entry The Boy. The only child in a broken family, he comes to us a teen and leaves us as a man, but what Langille makes us know, more intimately with every page, is the wounded boy who never goes away.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.