cover image Gram of Mars

Gram of Mars

Becky Hagenston. Sarabande Books, $21.95 (170pp) ISBN 978-1-889330-21-1

In her first collection, Hagenston focuses on dysfunctional families and the fragmented lives of their survivors. Told from the perspectives of women of various ages, these eight stories feature protagonists who are searching through their personal histories to discover the roots of their discontent. As characters recollect their memories of erratic, often helpless family members coping with dead-end lives, and begin to understand, if not always accept, the past, they realize their own need for forgiveness. In the title story, narrator Cathy leaves her disappointing life in Arizona to spend time with her divorced father in her native Maryland. Angered by his irresponsible, desperate attempts to be happy after the failure of his marriage, Cathy is also bewildered by her level-headed mother's seemingly easy transition into a new life. Hagenston uses moving details (Cathy's vision of her father stuffing quarters into a washing machine) to show how, ""caught in the orbit"" of a parent's sorrows, the grown children fear an ""empty and terrible"" future. In ""'Till Death Do Us Part,"" Joyce reflects on her four-times-wed mother's growing sentimentality: ""It was as if, by pointing out the way her daughters' lives differed from her own, she was holding up her failures for their inspection and forgiveness."" Writing with economic grace, her dialogue lively with low-key wit or resonant with plangent longing, Hagenston achieves the humor and distance needed to comprehend the complicated play of expectations, betrayals, secrets and familiarity that create dysfunction. The collection, which won the 1997 Mary McCarthy Prize, is a subtle reminder of the adage that you're never far from the place you're running from. (Dec.)