Acclaimed writer and literary critic Ellen Prentiss Campbell presents a collection of eleven short stories that explore loss and yearning, hope and fear, and the tension between imagination, memory, and reality. She takes her characters — young, middle-aged, and elderly — to moments where the border between past and present crumbles.
Campbell uncovers dramas and mysteries beneath the surface of daily life whether in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, the suburbs of Washington, D.C. or the heart of Manhattan. A practicing psychotherapist, she brings the art of listening for the unspoken, and expressing the unspeakable, to these pages.
Contents Under Pressure has been nominated for the National Book Award.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell is the author of Frieda's Song: A Novel (Apprentice House, May 2021), the short story collections Known By Heart (Apprentice House, May 2020) and Contents Under Pressure (Broadkill River Press, February 2016), which was nominated for The National Book Award, and the novel The Bowl with Gold Seams (Apprentice House, May 2016) which received the National Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been featured in numerous journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Fourth River, The Potomac Review, and The MacGuffin. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Fiction Writers Review, where she is a contributing editor, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She lives in Washington, D.C. For more see www.ellencampbell.net
I heard the author read from her work at a Festival of Books in Bedford, PA, and bought this book. I expect I'll also buy her novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, which is set in the resort hotel where I heard her read. Being a writer of short fiction, though, I went for the short stories first.
These are literary-style short stories about women under pressure. They are "told" more than "shown" in the parlance of writing coaches, but are neither dull nor uneventful. They do turn more on emotion than on action. There is generally a major change in the character's life by the end of the story.
The writing is excellent, just as it seemed when I heard the reading. They are set primarily in Central and Western Pennsylvania, making them local fiction for this reader.
Most of the stories turn on infidelity or sexual misbehavior. I must admit that I lost interest in that, as a basis for fiction, in my teenage years; so this wasn't really the book for me. I still admired it, though, and, as I say, expect to buy the novel.
I intend to use a particular paragraph from this collection (it's on page 67) as an example to my students of getting a lot of story and character work done quickly and efficiently. This is on the first page of a short story:
Zoe's not doing well in school, or anywhere else. An adjustment reaction, the therapist, Dr. Steiner, says. Normal regression that time will help, along with structure, and routine. But our train wreck requires her to alternate between two houses and cope with her dad's new wife and baby. I let Charlie have the house; it worked out better financially and I imagined making a fresh start. Our old house -- his house -- is walking distance from Zoe's school. So I pick her up there, my weeks. Though I tell her to have her backpack by the door so I can just summon her from the car, she's never ready. I must wait in the foyer, an outsider in my own house. If Charlie's home, we make conversation, confirm calendars. Whether he's there or not, I'm always aware of Sylvia and the baby. Invisible, somewhere upstairs. She hides the baby as though I'm the bad fairy, the one with the evil eye.
Loved these semi-linked short stories that focus on the way we betray and are betrayed in long-term relationships, and on the role of the ability to endure. Campbell is a polished, smart writer who deserves a wide readership.
Until recently, I wasn't a fan of short stories. I was too used to novels, so short stories seemed to leave me hanging. But I'm starting to get the appeal. I have not finished Contents yet (I've read about 2/3), because I'm saving it. It's good to have on hand when you start another book that turns out to be a disappointment, and you need something good to read Right Now. Occasionally in this book, we revisit characters, or see the same scene from a different character's point of view. Interesting.
These contents are under pressure indeed! These interconnected stories don't hold their punches, revealing the darker sides of our human natures, unflinchingly. In The Bicycle Lesson a young girl struggles to understand her father's mental illness and in Idlewild, a mother and daughter vie for the love of a man. These stories feature fractured relationships and hopes; they speak to what makes us human. Technically, Campbell, knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader engaged with the inner world of her characters; the language is neither too sparse, nor too florid. I'm so happy to have read this!