Short stories designed to push readers out of their comfort zone


The trouble with short stories is that you get caught up with the characters and the emotions, and maybe the mystery, and suddenly, the story ends. You’re disappointed, wishing that turning the page would bring more of the stuff you’d been engrossed in.

But Carol Dines’ collection of short stories manages to capture something more than reader attachment to the characters or the tease of a plot. Each of her stories in “This Distance We Call Love” (Orison Books) is a powerful elbow to the gut, which leaves you eager for the next situation, the next cast of characters, the next elbow.

She zeroes in on family, trust, marriage, fear, sex, loss, abandonment, and the strength and danger of a child’s imagination. The 13 stories that are as different in focus as they are alike in emotional power.


In “Almost,” the opening story, the hapless sister of a compassionate woman lives a life that strains the patience — the forbearance and the credulity — of everyone around her. She’s hard not to love. Her insouciance is remarkable, yet when the woman defends her sister: “She doesn’t hurt anyone,” her husband replies, “She hurts you.”

The love triangle in “Ice Bells” is juxtaposed against a family gathering where Willa, our protagonist, is agonizing over the inhibitions of her own heart, her capacity for betrayal and her biological identity. When there is an opening, an icy escape route, she takes it, but it’s short-lived and damaging. Dines leaves her readers there, having created an ending to the story that is almost a relief.

A little girl named Grace, enrolled in a progressive school that bases the curriculum around saving rain forests and their inhabitants, takes participation in her classes a little too far, perhaps, unsettling her parents. The story is visual and clingy, the ending, like many others in the collection, abrupt and haunting.


Dines is masterful at dancing around emotions and commitment, teasing her readers with promises of happy endings and stopping just short of them. She mines the world around her for situations that seem ordinary on the surface but, once examined, provide stories that merge together, sometimes uncomfortably. The result may leave readers unbalanced on occasion, but they’ll also feel embraced. A family buys a dog; a daughter is stalked; a husband misses the wife he resents; a child is killed; a marriage suffers.

“This Distance We Call Love” is a perceptively adult collection of works, yet Dines is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories for young adults, which probably accounts for the authentic characterizations of the children in this collection. They are wise, inscrutable, and sometimes catalytic. “People disappear in many ways,” says the daughter wistfully in “Disappearances.” Another daughter, disappointed in love and friendship, cleans out her locker at the tennis club where she has just lost a match, but it didn’t matter. Not anymore. “This world, too, had begun to feel small,” she decides.

Dines’ world is anything but small. “This Distance We Call Love” is a magnificent sweep of fine writing and unforgettable characters.

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