We Want What We Want

by Alix Ohlin

reviewed by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy

Alix Ohlin’s new story collection is filled with rowdy, irreverent people—primarily women—who have little use for societal expectations. These characters eschew the predictable for the impulsive. College students drop out of school, or move home and resume the same jobs they had before they left. Mothers, in these stories, frequently leave their families. The thematic consistency of absence unifies this collection, and the stories that do not include a dead or out-of-reach parent are still grounded in some form of loss.

In “The Detectives,” two sisters grapple with maternal absence after their father hires a private detective to follow their mother. Their mother finds out, and consequentially, “We never saw her again.” In “The Brooks Brothers Guru,” Amanda has inherited her late mother’s house in eastern Pennsylvania and lives there in relative isolation: “The house has everything she needs.” Later, having reconnected with John, a cousin she hasn’t seen since childhood, Amanda takes up the question of “need.” John has sold his property to join a collective in upstate New York that some consider a cult. Amanda, a guest in his new home, lies in bed and listens to John read poetry he’s written about their late mothers, who were sisters. “With chill and silent precision,” Ohlin writes, “she knows that this—this—is the reason she left home to look for her cousin. Here’s what she came for: to be with the person in the world who remembers what she does, who needs what she needs.” Ohlin’s choice of the word need reverberates when John suggests that Amanda sell her home and join him. We have already been told that Amanda’s house has everything she “needs”; to sell it would be to inflict deeper grief.

Ohlin’s most potent explorations of loss are shaped by the way she uses time. The best of these stories feature long separations—occasionally among family members, often between lovers or friends—and the reconciliations, or the disappointments, that follow. “The Woman I Knew” is one such story. The narrator is assigned a roommate at random, Iris Dolores. They develop a strong, sometimes codependent friendship, complicated by the fact that Iris withholds the identity of her biological father for a long time—he is a novelist that the narrator has always deeply admired. To keep this information secret is to create one kind of distance; later, a more literal separation deepens and extends that distance, so that the narrator finds herself learning of monumental events in Iris’s life through Iris’s father at a book reading. “People use the phrase lost touch as if it’s a casual negligence instead of what it can also be: a grief, a lack,” Ohlin comments. This collection’s attunement to the variations of “losing touch” is one of its strengths.

Arguably the finest of these stories, “Risk Management,” is a more compressed piece, set largely at a dinner in a woman’s apartment. Little—“Her name wasn’t really Little. It was something consonant-filled and Lithuanian the rest of us struggled to pronounce”—cooks for Valerie, her colleague at a dentist’s office, and Josh, who claims that Little was “pretending” to be a “mail-order bride” so that he would help her come to the States. Ohlin’s intelligence and insight are on display at this table, where the food drums up associations of longing and loss, even if Valerie, the narrator, has never had it before:

The kugelis turned out to be a kind of pudding, and Josh wasn’t kidding about Little’s cooking—it was fluffy and rich, deeply comforting, the kind of food your mother makes for you in childhood and you spend the rest of your life trying to imitate and fail. My own mother was a terrible cook, as well as being not a very nice person, but I still thought about food and love this way, and when I ate a meal like Little’s I sometimes found myself on the edge of tears.

Here, Ohlin’s work recognizes loss on a different scale altogether: loss of what one never had at all. The story, with its revulsions and complexities, recovering addicts and soda-chugging hopefuls, warm pudding and long shots, is already superb when Valerie acknowledges a bit of office gossip: yes, she killed her husband long ago, in self-defense. When Josh cries out, “I’m the only normal person here!” the story lets his statement go unanswered.

In “The Brooks Brothers Guru,” Amanda says of her father, “He thinks grief can be put to rest, tucked into bed at night like a child.” Ohlin’s stories, and their nod to the power of memory, push back on the notion of such a meager response to sorrow.

Published on March 29, 2022