cover image Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain

Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain

Lucia Perillo. Norton, $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-08353-8

MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet Perillo debuts a work of fiction in a lyrical short story collection that reveals a genius for plot and metaphor. The collection’s 14 stories take place in the Pacific Northwest and chart a broad emotional arc: the sisters of “Cavalcade of the Old West,” one subdued and the other sexually promiscuous, recall their youth before their temperaments drove them into different lives; a son receives the ashes of his emotionally distant father and struggles to perform a cathartic send-off, in “Ashes”; and “Big-Dot Day” finds a hapless boy dragged cross-country by his mother and her latest boyfriend. Throughout, Perillo shows a supple imagination and wit as she explores fate and its ironies: women caught in cycles of self-destruction; lovers wading through the ambiguities of erotic life; characters coming to terms with mortality. Varying in style and form, with shifts from first- to third- to second-person, Perillo tests the boundaries of the short story form, all while creating interesting characters and dynamic narratives. Though the prevailing tone is one of ironic melancholy, a subtle but sustaining sense of hope prevails. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant) strikes a glorious balance between wryly intelligent prose and emotional force, recalling Alice Munro at her best. This volume’s vibrant stories demonstrate the full potential of the short story form when put in the hands of a true artist. (May)