Still Life and Five Tuesdays in Winter reviews: a set of immersive, sometimes sorrowful, tales
Still Life by Sarah Winman
In the bombed-out hills of World War II Italy, sixtysomething art historian Evelyn Skinner meets a young British soldier named Ulysses Temper, and an improbable life-altering friendship ensues. That's the bare gist of the latest from Sarah Winman (When God Was a Rabbit, Tin Man), though her winsome, large-hearted novel sprawls far and wide from there, focused mostly on the motley crew that populates a local London pub for the next several decades to come — a ragtag cast whose ranks include a pianist, a sexpot, and a scrappy little girl most people just call "kid."
When luck leads Ulysses back to the umber domes and cobblestones of Florence, several bar regulars follow, and the home they make there becomes a haven for lost souls, kooks, and outcasts. Character and coincidence easily trump plot, but bright Life still pulses from the page. B+
Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
Lily King has spent half a lifetime penning big, generous novels (Writers & Lovers, Euphoria). So maybe it's not surprising that the 10 short stories collected here have the immersive feel of longer fiction, shrunk down to snow-globe miniature: In the charged opener "Creature," a teenage girl's summer babysitting job becomes a queasy lesson in sexuality and class divides; in "North Sea," a young widow tries to win over her mutinous daughter with a misguided vacation; and "Hotel Seattle" explores a sinister reunion between a gay man and his college crush.
Beyond the tenderhearted midlife romance of the title story, Tuesdays' outcomes tend to lean more bitter than sweet. But the book's surreal closer, "The Man at the Door," goes out on a high note — spinning a nursing mother's domestic drudgery into a small triumph of magical realism, with a tidy side of vengeance. B+