JoAnneh Nagler’s engrossing story collection, Stay with Me, Wisconsin, offers a finely honed and ultimately uplifting perspective on grief, love, intimacy, and healing.
Some of the ambitious stories delivered here compress an entire life, like the opening “Ponty Bayswater,” which features a war veteran and insurance salesman who finds two great loves; “Asa at the Foundry,” which charts the evolution of a suddenly made family; and “Maximus,” whose character travels from Mexico to the U.S. to find an unexpected mentor. Smaller in scope but even more stirring are the raw, realistic struggles of protagonists like Claire Rose, who is trying to find a way to survive devastating cruelty, or Delbert of “Green Leaf,” stunned by a double loss.
Nagler’s characters search for love and wholeness, and most arrive there in some fashion, whether it’s a mountain climber who realizes he’s lost his moral compass (“The Trek”), a grieving widow who finds solace in new friends (“Atotoniclo”), or a perfumer whose cruel lover makes him realize that “[k]indness was a barometer for everything I would choose to live for in my life” (“Leaving Lefty”).
Settings are precisely rendered, whether it’s a small town in Wisconsin, Mexico, or the side of Mount Everest. With equal skill, Nagler explores her characters’ inner landscapes, offering insight and prose luminous in embracing pain as well as love, as when the grieving narrator of “Fishing” says: “I move towards my father’s gear, and like spying a pinhole of light in a pitch-black room, the fog that has been clogging my brain is pinpricked a bit–a tiny pressure release in the balloon of my loss….”
A distinctive style throughout eventually makes many of the narrators sound the same, but because the stories are linked, detecting the relationships between them is one of the book’s many rewards. Tender and encompassing, with distinct, full-bodied characters learning to become adults, the world of Stay with Me, Wisconsin is one readers will embrace.
Highly recommended for fans of A. Manette Ansay and Amy Parker.