The Beauty of Their Youth: Stories
by Joyce Hinnefeld
Wolfson Press/American Storytellers Series, 97 pages
reviewed by Beth Kephart
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
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Some attributes of the fine short-story writer, as noted and further refined while reading Joyce Hinnefeld, who also happens to be a fine novelist (read her In Hovering Flight, if you haven’t already had that pleasure):
To be precise and precisely patient.
To enter quickly into the whole world of the thing with a minimum of explanation and a surfeit of knowing.
To arc toward the kind of surprise that does not shatter the hidden rules of the story.
To make of language something vital.
There are five Hinnefeld stories, four of them previously published in literary journals, in The Beauty of Their Youth, a release from the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. One is about the legacy of a “pool of desire.” One is about the accessorizing of a family crime. One is about the tragedy of idle desires, another about an artist and his elastic resume, and another about a mother and daughter on a trip abroad and the reverb of the personal past. The stories take us to Bucks County, PA, inside the pages of a Carson McCullers book, toward Everglades gators and gun shows, through the annals of art, across parts of Greece and Rome—a tour of landscape and psyche that is seamless, self-assured, quietly inventive. Hinnefeld doesn’t break her own spells. She doesn’t remind you that she’s writing.
While every piece in this collection is mesmerizing in its way, I wish to highlight the two bookends. “Polymorphous,” which opens the book, is launched by a first paragraph that contains a thousand seeds but remains rooted in a single patch of earth. Everything that is to come is augured here: Joan’s relationship with herself, Joan’s relationship with her neighbor, Joan’s relationship with her world, Joan’s relationship with time. It’s worth quoting in full, for what it teaches us about Hinnefeld’s method, which is to say her artfulness with encapsulation and the care she takes to be thorough but not didactic :
By the time she was 20, with a little baby and a household to run, Joan had already started to seem like some sort of local exotic to her friends from high school, home from college on their breaks. All because she canned her own vegetables and sewed her own clothes and breastfed her son, at a time and in a place where those things wouldn’t come back into fashion for a good while. Now, forty years later, she still gardened and canned and sewed. She’d even gone back to school and finished her own degree eventually, with a nice and useless and exotic major in English. But by now the things that made her colorful in the eyes of her friends and neighbors was her weekly outing with her eighty-year-old neighbor, a gay man named Richard Meredith.
Richard and Joan are prickly friends. Richard’s own exotic past contains complicated secrets. A pool of desire in that Bucks County land percolates with still-unanswered questions. History wields power over both these characters and they wield power over each other, the ebbing and flowing of which provides the tension in the story.
In “The Beauty of Their Youth,” a mother and her 20-year-old daughter travel to Greece and Italy—the mother with hopes both of strengthening the bond with her daughter and of revisiting the people and places she remembers from an abroad summer years before. Fran, the mother, is both claiming and reclaiming, in other words, whereas Miranda, the daughter, is determined to see this new-old world through her own eyes. When the two meet up with Fran’s long-ago lover (in Greece) and long-ago friend (in Rome), Fran is confronted with a new and unwelcome version of the mythology she’d webbed around her youthful adventures. She is forced, as Hinnefeld writes, to reckon with some of the ways she’d not been trusted, some of the ways the world hides the most human parts of us from view:
There were things you didn’t post, Fran thought now, wide awake at three AM. Often the most important things, the things that had indelibly shaped your life. Your family’s secret history. Your marriage to a junkie. Your daughter’s slow, sure drift away from you. Your husband’s thoughtless and fleeting affair all those years ago. And your chronic thoughts of leaving him.
Hinnefeld writes empathetically. She writes, too, with lacerating emotional economy. In between she layers in the world—its reflective surfaces, its values, its artistic traditions, its gators, the secrets that are suppressed until they aren’t.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a widely published essayist, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. A memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in February 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
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