Alethea Black's deeply moving and wholly original debut features a coterie of memorable characters who have reached emotional crossroads in their lives. Brimming with humor, irony, and insights about the unpredictable nature of life, the unbearable beauty of fate, and the power that one moment, or one decision, can have to transform us, I Knew You'd Be Lovely delivers that rare thing—stories with both an edge and a heart.
As I always try to do when reviewing a short story collection, first thing's first -- the quick rundown of what all these stories contain:
1) That Of Which We Cannot Speak -- Bradley finds he's not really in the mood for attending a holiday party but goes anyway for his friend Oscar. Once at the party, he finds himself pulled into wonderfully unusual conversation with a woman who has been struck down by laryngitis and has only a board on which to communicate. * Fun fact picked up from this story: The word "facetious" features all the vowels in order!
2) The Only Way Out Is Through -- A father arranges a camping trip to try to reconnect with his angry, sociopathic son
3) Good In A Crisis -- AP high school English teacher Ginny relishes her spinsterly solitude, or so she thought. On the suggestion of a friend, Ginny decides to look up the man who inspired her to teach English, the teacher she had quite the crush on back in the day.
4) The Thing Itself -- Felix, a lawyer in Los Angeles, California, one day starts to get a sort of premonition that something major is headed his way. He doesn't know quite what it is or if it's good or bad exactly... but just merely fixating on the idea of it causes a definite disruption in his life.
5)The Laziest Form of Revelation -- While Ruby has her portrait painted, she plays a thought-provoking game of 20 Questions (or thereabouts) with the portrait artist.
6) The Summer Before -- An adult Beth thinks back to that "summer before", the summer before her parents got divorced, when Beth was having a lovely time with her sisters full of warm days, chilling at the lake, summer flirtations with those twin brothers who were their neighbors at the time... for a moment everything had the facade of innocence... until the day one of Beth's sisters went missing.
7) Mollusks Make a Comeback -- Katie is feeling a strong sense of malaise about her life, then comes to the realization that a major culprit causing those feelings may be her own deeply rooted fears she's been hesitant to address.
8) I Knew You'd Be Lovely -- title story, obvs. Hannah fears her man is tempted to cheat with Sydney, a female pen pal he's been corresponding with... his birthday is coming up so Hannah feels she needs the absolute perfect gift to lure him back.
9) Proof of Love -- God-loving Kelly gets involved with agnostic, tortured soul Nash, conflicted feelings arise.
10) A Great Future Behind Us -- Walt, a down on his luck singer-songwriter / dad-to-be needs that great comeback piece to breathe life back into his stalled career. His answer is to reunite the powerhouse (albeit currently very much estranged) songwriting couple Zeb & Deb. Though Zeb & Deb are inspired to get working again, the reunion dripping with animosity proves that there's clearly some unresolved issues between them.
11) Double Blind -- Kim is on a first date with Ben that just keeps getting progressively more awkward ... yet they find themselves bonding over the hilarity of all the mishaps!
Ben and I were at the Middle East, a late-night coffeehouse in Central Square, where he’d just ordered an Irish coffee, a drink I’ve always considered to be a waste of all three ingredients.
12) The Far Side Of The Moon -- Mitch tries to take his crush Mandy on a date but has to deal with the hiccup of his best friend tagging along. At the end of the night Mandy agrees to a date re-do but before that date can happen gets word that she's been accepted to art school in Rome and must leave immediately. For years to come, Mitch ponders the thoughts and feelings surrounding the "what ifs" of a date that was never able to come to fruition.
13) Someday Is Today -- This one is actually an autobiographical piece in which author Alethea Black talks about the aftermath of her sister suddenly becoming a widow and how Black, her sister, and her sister's children pulled together in mourning and coping in the weeks and months following her brother-in-law's passing.
Now, on first glance it might not seem like there's much to these stories, plot-wise. The beauty of this collection is actually within Black's writing style and the thoughts she inspires the reader to have while introducing you to these characters. Even though the overall tone varies -- some may be light-hearted, a bit tongue-in-cheek while others are quite moving and sad -- there is still this amazing warmth permeating throughout the whole collection... almost like you're sitting with that one friend who just always has the best way of telling stories, no matter the subject!
I'd say my personal favorites in the collection were "Good in a Crisis" and "Proof of Love". There was also something to "Double Blind" that I quite liked... maybe it was Ben's way of having a sweetness to his strangeness.
My mother claims that people show you everything you need to know about them within the first hour of meeting them, it’s just that most of us aren’t paying attention. And I have to say, she might be right. If I look closely enough, all the chords of our four years together were struck that first night: Ben’s eccentricity, his warmth, his need for me to prove my love. As were my desire to please him, my skepticism, my ultimate inability to see things the way he did. All the notes of our undoing were there, alongside the notes of our joy.
There was also a moment in "Great Future Behind Us" that gave me that mental "wow" moment: Walt is conversing with a pawn shop owner when he asks the guy how he stomachs the business, where it seems dreams come to an end. The pawn broker answers back, "I like to think of it as a place where new dreams begin."
Though many of Black's characters are put through the emotional wringer, each story seems to close with a sense of hope, even if the source is only a pinpoint of light in an otherwise bleak tale, sometimes a pinpoint is all you need to keep you going, right? :-) Regardless of the situation, each of these characters seems to find their way to an unexpected level of comfort, peace, or at the very least, an acceptable resolution to unresolved feelings, unanswered prayers or whatever else leaves them unsettled in their current situations.
There's just a whole lotta realness to these stories overall that gave me a soothing sense of comfort and appreciation for what my hardships have taught me over the years.... a feeling of "maybe there is a reason for it all... after all". So thinking on all of that as a whole, I came to feel that this book could not be more aptly titled, when you think about it!
I also loved the bonus material Black includes where she gives the reader a peek into what in her personal life inspired each of the stories in this collection. I love BTS stuff like that! If you are an aspiring writer yourself, you may find comfort in her sharing her struggles with the craft of writing -- how "The Summer Before" was her first stab (outside of school compositions) at writing short stories, yet it sat unpublished for 15 years as she tried to figure out what about it wasn't working for her; "Mollusks Make A Comeback" similarly lingered on her computer for 12 years but eventually became her very first published short story (via winning submission in a writing competition)... so future published authors don't despair! It's called "mastering" the craft because it's meant to take time!