Relationships are complicated. Loving another person—be it a family member, friend or lover—requires trust and openness. But most people have emotional baggage that keeps them from achieving a true sort of intimacy.
Or at least that's true for the characters in Scott Nadelson's latest collection of short stories, The Cantor's Daughter (Hawthorne Press, 257 pages, $15.95). Like Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories, Nadelson's 2004 Oregon Book Award-winning debut, these stories focus on the day-to-day interactions of Jewish New Jersey suburbanites. In stories darkly comic and tragic at times, Nadelson's carefully crafted prose makes his characters' emotional shortcomings accessible to readers. In the title story, a father is too damaged by his wife's death to notice his teenage daughter's self-destructive behavior. A daughter in "Walter's Girls" grieves her father's death silently, while her neurotic sisters manipulate the family tragedy to gain sympathy for their own unsatisfying lives.
Each story involves a missed opportunity for intimacy. Such similarity leads one to wonder just what makes these characters so alike. Location may be the cause: "It was these suburbs, with nothing for the kids to do," Nadelson suggests in "Model Rockets." "Their daughter had always been a relatively smart girl.... But in high school she'd come home from her weekend dates with dress rumpled, bra dangling or missing." Surely the social environment of the suburbs is twisted, but do these characters really trust so much less than someone from New York City or Lubbock, Texas?
Nadelson's best trick is slipping complex emotions and startling revelations between smooth and steady sentences, as a mother mixes in peas with the mashed potatoes so her child will eat his vegetables unwittingly. It is easy to become so invested in his characters' lives that it no longer matters how they became damaged; Nadelson's so engaging that the why is almost irrelevant. But the same thing that makes The Cantor's Daughter compelling—the hope that these characters will be able to put aside their problems and accept love—also makes it disappointing when a happy ending is so rare. What emerges from these complex characters is the unsettling feeling that unhealthy and painful relationships are not limited to New Jersey Jews. Those entanglements are an unfortunate fact of daily life that, according to Nadelson, force us to examine why we've become so reluctant to care about the people who care about us.