Body Work, Hollis Seamon's collection of short stories about women, is about relationships however temporary, odd, or untenable, the hope inherent in possibilities and yes, the female body.
"Body Work," the lead story, is about grief locked away and hard to get at. The main character, Lisa/Alice, is surrounded by good people -- nuns, in fact. Her attitude toward them is not exactly superior, but she distances herself from them. This distancing is caused by her own personality and by her grief, which will only be released through a surprising kind of resurrection. That is all I will say without giving away too much of the plot, except that drowning and water –- primarily the Hudson River -– figure largely in Body Work. These drownings or near drownings always bring about some insight or healing, the kind of healing that women bring to each other, especially women with whom we feel we have nothing in common.
In the coming of age "Learning to Bleed," another near-drowning brings yet another insight for the main character: growing up means growing apart, and the togetherness of childhood friends eventually falls away when an event which is life-changing for one person goes ignored, misunderstood or unnoticed by the other.
Births and family also figure in these stories. In "Riverkeeper", the narrator contemplates a family while Ruthie, the deformed mother of two beautiful children,loses hers because of the government's idea of "family." It is a hopeful story -– for the narrator.
"Middle Aged Martha Anne" is the story of a former ad writer whose once-sophisticated life is now changed by age, widohood, retirement, and relocation. Her son wants to call her back to life –- which may or may not be a good thing -– but the life of nature and cats are recreating in her all that those ad years have taken from her.
Many of the stories touch on sexuality. One of the most noticeable is "Sluts", which recalls the early sixties when such terms were used and when the consequence for being sluttish was often ostracism. "A Midsummer Night's Dream in Middletown" is about a healing fertility ritual among three couples, neighbors and friends who have known each other long. Like "Body Work," it is about healing created by a group. But unlike "Body Work," the healing is not apparent, although the narrator seems to believe that it is. The narrator takes pains to make the reader see the characters as normal everyday folks. After all, once the barriers to identification with those in pain are removed –- wealth, politics, degree of flakiness -– ostensibly the pain, spirituality and needs of others would be understood and, if not accepted, then tolerated. The story "At Home With the Candidate's Mistress" also uses identification, but it is a slight and unoriginal story about a mistress watching as her lover and his wife are presented to the media. Perhaps there are too many stories out there about the sorrows, delusions and griefs of mistresses. This adds nothing new. Luckily, it is the only story in Body Work that misses the mark.
Two of the best stories are "Body Snatchers: The Travel Game" and "The Strange Sad History of Suzanne LaFleshe." In the former, three unlikely women brought together through carpooling form a workable if temporary bond and discuss love, death and family. In "The Strange Sad History of Suzanne LaFleshe," the main character, who has been enjoyed for her voluptuous body, challenges the precepts of Weight Watchers by trying to re-gain her lost weight and her lost sexuality -– the only connection she has with any other human being. She loses her game when she meets a young anorectic rape victim whom she learns to nurture, and thus learns to relate to others without the use of sex.
Hollis Seamon's prose can be rich, evocative and textured. Most of the stories are touching, and all of the stories will touch her readers. Body Work shows the spiritual and healing power of communal understanding. In many of these stories, the narrator's grief and the grief of the trauma she relates are generally diametrically opposed. Either the narrator views the neighbor's grief from a relatively safe distance, or the narrator's own trauma is tragic but goes unnoticed. Even in those stories where the narrator is not a character in the story, it is clear that the author is saying that grief helps us to relate but that it can be relativized. Only in the case of the truly blessed is it truly absolute, and therefore truly tragic. Seamon's use of setting and description are masterly. Her love of language is obvious, and anyone who likes to see language used well and strikingly will re-read some passages in the book. No wonder her stories have been widely published, anthologized and awarded prizes.