Jump forward to the late ‘90s – a time frame ascertained when Jude playfully swats Frannie, now 36, with a newspaper bearing a photo of President Clinton, a detail that exemplifies Schachner’s mastery of showing, not telling. Frannie has just moved from Charlotte to a one-grocery-store town in North Carolina, and references to the scrutiny of small-town life are frequent: “Then we sat side by side on the steps so that the neighbors wouldn’t miss any more developments in our relationship.”
She first meets Jude when he is despondent and riding a child’s carousel in front of a discount store. They begin dating around the same time his quirky, depressed ex-wife moves back to town, making her presence well known. Complications are compounded when Frannie’s father reveals he has lung cancer, then “Mama” conveniently suggests that “Daddy” might live longer if Frannie were to get pregnant. The good daughter abides by drafting a list of candidates for fatherhood that “contained two people, a man I had known since childhood, and, of course, Jude.” But the plan is derailed by discouraging news from Frannie’s doctor.
Thoughts of potential new life juxtaposed against imminent death brings previously taboo topics to light, like that of the stillborn baby her mother delivered when Frannie was 12. When a newly hired cleaning woman finds the baby food Frannie had rebelliously stolen at that time stashed in a bedroom closet, she demands Frannie and her mom return the expired jars to 7-Eleven, prompting a bonding experience in which the stillborn child’s intended name is finally revealed: Alice. Frannie longs for that kind of openness between her parents, and is determined for it to happen before her father dies. The novel’s resolutions seem less wrapped up with a pretty bow and more buried under layers of tissue paper in an honest, satisfying way.
Except on rare occasions, Schachner’s prose displays a mix of “beauty and practicality,” which is how Jude describes Frannie during their second meeting, and it shines best in darker moments. After her mother, still pregnant with Alice, is taken to the hospital on a stretcher that “disappeared into the ambulance like a baking tray into an oven,” Frannie starts to make a list of reasons she should go to a dance. “It became, however, a list of all the reasons the baby might not have wanted to be born, which began with dentist’s visits and ended with me.”
The most captivating story line, though, is that of Rita and Jude’s lost son. Jude’s reticence to discuss him leads Frannie to seek out Rita, a woman whose grief manifests itself through a “dystopic film set” around her child’s grave at their former home. It was a backyard “made of toys,” a shrine with a jack-in-the-box and limbless action figures hanging from tree branches, tricycles and bikes littered everywhere and a mock garden of baseball bats and tennis rackets stuck in the ground. The collective imagery of this vibrant story, painted in the mind by Schachner, will not dissipate anytime soon.
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‘You and I and Someone Else’
By Anna Schachner
Mercer University Press
$18, 320 pages