Picks and Pans Review: Not a Free Show

updated 08/15/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Helen Schulman

There is a wistful melancholy to much of this short-story collection, where a lot of people confront the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives with a joke or a shrug—with some kind of distraction in their aspect. In "James Dean's Widow," a young woman reflects on her marriage to a man (killed in a car accident) who—she convinced herself—had resembled James Dean. "To Die From" is about a near-30 woman in New York, desperate to succeed as an actress and more desperate over the tickings of her biological clock. She phones an ex-boyfriend who has become gay; they sleep together platonically. In "Before and After: Snapshots," a woman talks to her beloved, long-dead husband in her mind—comfortably, matter-of-factly—about what their life together was and might have been. This is the first book by Schulman, 27, a New Yorker with a spare style and an understanding of the peculiar qualities that make people love each other. A 20ish woman whiling away the time working on an ice-cream truck in Cape Cod describes her taste in men: "I guess I like the type who is needy and flipsides, like Mojo the lovable schizoid. He is, in his own terms, a post-Marxist with a yen for a Porsche." A slightly older woman who has a complicated relationship with her mother thinks: "She says: 'If you marry not Jewish it will be hard for me.' She says: 'Don't get married.' She says: 'Don't have children; it will ruin your life.' She says: 'I want you to grow up and get married so that you can have a little girl just like you.' " None of these sadly familiar characters asks for sympathy; they all deserve it. The young widow of "James Dean," on a Hawaii vacation with her parents, sits watching surfers surge and crash in the waves: "What I learned was this: the sense to nonsense, giving in, joining. Those boys, those boys they went along with it, they concerted themselves with the sea. They could read her."(Knopf, $15.95)

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