cover image Things to Make and Break

Things to Make and Break

May-Lan Tan. Emily Books, $16.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-56689-527-9

With this provocative debut, Tan proves herself a sharp chronicler of contemporary romance. Her stories feature setups including a love triangle consisting of twin brothers and a woman with brain damage (“DD-MM-YY”) and a movie star’s tryst with her transgender stunt double (“Candy Glass”). In the brief, impressionistic “Ghosts,” an unfaithful husband suppresses his kinks to save his marriage. “Would Like to Meet” finds Amber, a museum curator with bone cancer, attempting to find a woman for her husband to remarry after she dies. The narrator, having answered the couple’s ad, is immediately receptive (“They were trying to pull the future into the present, to make a place for Amber in it. I thought it was a beautiful idea”) even as the husband has second thoughts. These stories are attention-grabbing, though sometimes hamstrung by Tan’s inclination to default to stock imagery to evoke her characters’ passion for each other (“I drifted in your wake, feeling the tug of your slipstream. I watched your cigarette hand in the wind, smoke threading your fingers”). The collection’s best moments are its small ones, when Tan focuses on the maintenance of a relationship rather than its alluring arrival. Tan has a powerful ability to push the characters’ relationships to their emotional limits, and she is never better than when those limits break. (Oct.)