'You're So Beautiful' & 'Normal'

You're So Beautiful
Eileen FitzGerald
St. Martin's Press, $21.95, 198 pp.

Normal
Lucia Nevai
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $17.95, 217 pp.

Middle-class America can be a peculiar place. Beyond the monotony of split-level homes and overpasses, of cheerleading practice and the Baby Gap, many Americans struggle, for the most part silently, with the tenuousness of their lives.

Reading the stories in these two first collections is like taking a series of detours on a trip across the landscape of American anxiety. The liveliest stories in You’re So Beautiful and Normal capture a frantic energy and trace a shaky path over the day-to-day lives of people blessed with plenty of comforts, but little security. Most of Eileen FitzGerald’s and Lucia Nevai’s characters are fueled by a quirky sense of their own precariousness. These are people who are seemingly held hostage to their vulnerabilities (and very real fears), and almost literally held captive in shopping malls, grocery store checkout lines, wedding receptions, their own homes, and even the Holland Tunnel.

The mildness and humor of family life-moments of predictability, restlessness, and doubt among siblings, parents and their children, couples, and neighbors-infuse many of the stories. Some of these families have managed to stay intact and are battling a nagging uneasiness; others, disconnected, are still shocked by loss, looking to control or repair what’s left. In “Chicken Train,” one of FitzGerald’s lighter pieces, a ripening peach becomes a lifeline to youth for a forty-one-year-old husband...

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About the Author

Jacqueline Dowdell, formerly Commonweal’s production editor, is a graduate student in the English department at Cornell University.