Pity the poor novella, that no man’s land of fiction, with more heft than a short story, but less than a novel. The default place for such work tends to be alongside short stories, which can make the shorter work seem small or slight. Richard Ford’s story collection, “Sorry for Your Trouble,” is one of those hybrid affairs, but with a definite upside. It’s more like a twofer: We expect short stories, only to find a couple of novellas tucked in, which nearly steal the show.

Cover courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

In his latest book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author takes on a roller coaster of life’s challenges – among them, divorce, sudden death, displacement, rebuilding a life. Considering the generally dark palette of his themes, there’s a strange joy to this book. Perhaps it emanates from the nearly kinetic ruminations of his characters, who are forever observing their inner climate. And, in the process, they illuminate pieces of themselves for their own use and ours. If many of his characters seem to be sorting out their lives, Ford assigns a clarity to the process that one could only wish for in real life. There’s no muddling through the troubles that beset these folks. They may feel anguish or loss, but they do it with such precision and finesse! All of which makes for an incisive and satisfying read.

Of particular interest in this richly textured collection is the range of views on marriage and grieving. In the novella, “The Run of Yourself,” a widower, trying to move forward from a shared past, rents a summer house alone in Maine, down the road from where his wife committed suicide. The story moves back and forth between the present and that earlier tragic summer, reconstructing the tenor of their long marriage and its sudden end.

“Deciding, then, to take the little house for August was, Peter Boyce knew, only chronic restiveness brought on by Mae’s death. Grief, he realized, had evolved into jittery, inner, barely governable clamor,” Ford writes, “a sensation he didn’t recognize in himself but did in others.”

The other novella, “Second Language,” while lighter in tone, is also more provocative. Its central characters, Jonathan and Charlotte, embark on a marriage, the second for each, after only a brief courtship. Each remains haunted by a former spouse. That they barely know each other despite their apparent chemistry, becomes increasingly clear when Charlotte suggests, out of the blue, that they divorce. Nor does she view divorce as an ending so much as a continuum, a sort of sliding scale of inevitability.

“It was, however, as if divorce could be a new and better version of a long marriage,” Ford writes, “something he’d never thought of, but would.”

Among the book’s seven short stories, two, in particular, stand out. “Displaced” is a colorful coming-of-age story narrated by a teen whose father has recently died. In “A Free Day,” we witness an ongoing affair from the woman’s vantage, as she adopts a purposeful nonchalance. She views the affair as a “portal,” lovely and benign, that also provides the occasional “free day” for roaming the city and shopping.

“Sorry for Your Trouble” showcases a medley of longing and loss, of grappling with the past and trying to fashion a future. Not incidentally, Maine, where the author has lived for years, often figures into that equation. As Ford says in one of the stories, “Maine was a very good place from which to begin again, go outward into the world.” 

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her book of linked essays, “Someday This Will Fit,” was recently released by Bauhan Publishing.


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