Cities I’ve Never Lived In

by Sara Majka

reviewed by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy

I’ve spent a winter in Provincetown, and I understand the reasons an outsider, under layers of coat and scarf, might wish to be mistaken for a local on the Outer Cape. One feels the allure of its insularity and its oddness, passing gallery after gallery on quiet, snow-thickened streets. I remember resolving that if I couldn’t stay in Provincetown, I’d at least learned that I needed to live by the water.

In Sara Majka’s debut story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, Provincetown is among the many places in which Maine native Anne—a frequent narrator here, but not the only one— grieves the end of her marriage. Though the marriage itself is rarely on the page, the majority of Anne’s experiences are filtered through her loss of Richard, and of lovers who remain, for the most part, unnamed and indistinct. “It’s hard to talk about love,” Anne muses. “It’s as if it closes when we’re not experiencing it and becomes impossible to recall.” Confronted with that impossibility, she turns her gaze, instead, to art and the detritus of strangers. In nearly all of Majka’s stories, her readers will encounter at least one museum or gallery, as well as a secondhand shop or an antiques store. Though Anne finds herself resistant to the subject of love, she tirelessly recounts gallery shows (the first story in the collection is named after one such show) and odd little stores (in “Miniatures,” we find a place that “left out coffee … for customers who never came” and a dollhouse containing tiny flasks of perfume).

These stories are perfectly suited to such curiosities; the characters brood, travel, and wonder, fully absorbed in the act of observation. Majka offers only the slightest gloss on their professional lives, and they seem, mostly, to have an abundance of free time in which to agonize and cogitate.

We see Anne, especially, living in borrowed houses, drifting from city to city, and, in the title story, eating in soup kitchens in places like Buffalo, East St. Louis, and Detroit, more out of vague ambition than necessity. Such an impulse threatens to become tedious, and worse, since Anne contemplates taking photographs of the homeless people she meets: “I wanted to take pictures of what I was seeing, but it didn’t feel right. Poverty was everywhere and was overwhelming.” This quandary—a fairly unoriginal one—is one of the reasons “Cities I’ve Never Lived In” is one of the less compelling stories in the collection (though Anne redeems herself, utterly, in “Boston”).

Majka’s voice brightens in some of the other stories, including “Strangers” and “Saint Andrews Hotel.” “Strangers” shares a setting with several of Majka’s works: an unnamed island in Maine, isolated from the mainland by a ferry ride. Gene—pensive and taciturn, as are many of the characters here—remains loyal to his daughter-in-law, Meghan, even after Meghan betrays his son Shaun. Rather than defend Shaun, who flees with the children for two days, then returns them and disappears, Gene slowly begins to take over Shaun’s role in Meghan’s life. His compassion is absolute, his anger notably absent: “Gene thought of what loneliness could do to you, that Meghan had been lonely in ways no one else had thought of.” Gene’s meditations are some of the most beautiful in Majka’s work: “You grow to love a woman, seeing her that way, the way she comes through the back door in her bare feet, or the way her cheek looks when she turns and there is a soft slope.” Equally moving is the loving gaze Anne casts on her own mother in “Boston,” when the two women house-sit at a cottage on a lake. “It’s impossible to see your mother as a middle-aged man might see her,” Anne says after she witnesses a mild flirtation between her mother and a neighbor. “To see her as a girl grown older. But I still tried to imagine.”

In these carefully crafted stories, each a “transcript” or “record” in its way, Majka’s depictions of love are neither simple nor unencumbered by the past. They are insightful, and lovely, and true.

Published on December 9, 2016