Steven Schwartz brings a fresh vision to issues of marriage and family in his recent fiction, developing characters that claimed my allegiance because I empathized with their problems and admired their determination to develop solutions that never compromised their needs and desires. I began with his story collection, Little Raw Souls and then moved on to his just-published novel, The Tenderest of Strings.
In the stunning final story, "The Theory of Everything," a grandfather faces the loss of the grandchildren he and his wife have rescued from the chaotic household of their emotionally unstable son and his addicted wife. When the parents claim their lives have stabilized, the grandparents are skeptical, but they lack the legal authority to keep the children. Inevitably, their son's household spirals into chaos again, and the worried grandparents search for a way to become the children's full-time guardians.
The grandfather, who owns rental properties, has a light touch when negotiating the thorny problems that crop up with his tenants. He is a wise reader of people and a savvy businessman, but no match for a problem of this magnitude. The reader expects defeat when he asks to meet with his daughter in law, but this elderly man has devised a solution that will allow everyone to get what they want without shame or punishment. It is a bold piece of action and a brilliant coda to these well-plotted stories. And by well-plotted, I mean that events never feel arbitrary. They are inextricably linked with the characters' habits and desires.
The Tenderest of Strings, Schwartz's new novel, is about a middle-aged couple, Reuben, the owner of a small-town newspaper, and his wife Ardith, the mother of their two high school aged sons. Complications arise when Ardith has an affair with their close friend, the town's family doctor, a man named Tom who is beloved of many. Tom seems to be above reproach in all aspects of his life; he is a great doctor, athlete, and an affable and easy-going friend, and Ardith falls deeply in love and becomes pregnant. The reader expects that a divorce or abortion will follow, but Ardith has other plans, and this is why the novel is utterly compelling. Each new plot turn raises false expectations and time and again, the reader's assumptions about the way people should act under the circumstances turn out to be wrong. Ardith is such a memorable character she stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
Early in the novel, the reader sees why she's vulnerable to the charms of another man and it's everything to do with her daily life living in the chaos of the half-remodeled house Reuben is in the process of never finishing. Tom's strong, affable personality attracts her because he's an orderly man who is firmly in charge of all aspects of his life, or at least he seems to be.
In the same way, the reader also understands why Ardith makes all the unexpected decisions that grow from this affair, including the major ones, not to abort and not to divorce the other man she loves, her husband Reuben. From one life-altering event to the next, the novel is beautifully paced and for fiction writers, is a great example of the ways character determines plot. Ardith and Reuben take on the three dimensions of flesh and blood people because their actions and words are grounded in concrete experience. The events that roil their lives, some of them becoming headlines in Reuben's paper, are similarly grounded in concrete experience.
Early in the novel, Ardith is relaxing in a deep tub at Tom's house after lovemaking, and the peace and cleanliness of his environment soothes her as she thinks about Reuben:
"Despite his cries of wanting the simple life, he thrived on keeping matters unresolved, all of which offered him the familiarity of his angst and the comfort of entropy. Things had to get worse before they could…get worse. Completion was the enemy" (28). Her insight is significant and for the reader, makes the affair understandable. But Schwartz knows that offering this abstract revelation is not enough; it must be felt through details that are realistic and specific to their situation. We need to see that the affair is firmly rooted in her own desires and marital struggles. Still in the tub, she continues:
"It was no coincidence that [Reuben] was a copyeditor, a checker of other people's work. The truth was he couldn't finish anything of his own, couldn't set the same deadlines and standards for himself he enforced as an editor for others. When Ardith went to the Sentinel and saw the fractured disarray of his desk,…it looked exactly like the house's torn up front and back porches with their splintered boards so spongy and rotted from the hot sun and cold winters that they sagged like foam rubber when you walked on them. Bags of nails, lumber, rolls of insulation, drop clothes, cans of paint had all been delivered and stationed around the yard among the pried-up boards, the duct-taped mailbox, the rusted pipes, the ripped-out shingles. Inside, displayed along the perimeter of the living room like a showroom for interior design, waited product samples: kitchen tile, cabinet doors, carpet folios, bathroom fixtures, and paint strips with exotic and inspirational sounding names like vanilla mirage, tangerine surf, and (simply) hope. She had no idea where to begin. They couldn't pay one hundred and fifty thousand to 'do it right,' or seventy-five to do it half-right. So it would all remain in preparatory chaos. Nothing would change" (29).
This list, so familiar to anyone who has lived through the horrors of renovating an old house, is well-chosen, and the entire picture, interior and exterior, contrasts with the comforts of Tom's house and is more revealing than dialogue or character-focused exposition. The bags of nails and stacks of lumber, the sink and toilet sitting in the living room among all of the cabinet doors is the reason Ardith fell in love with another man, and because they're things I can see and touch and smell, I am there, fully engaged, ready to follow the surprising twists and turns her affair creates. Moral judgement is irrelevant. I've been so deliciously manipulated by the author I can inhabit Ardith's point of view and cheer her on.
Schwartz, Steven. Little Raw Souls. Pittsburgh, PA: Autumn House. 2013.
Schwartz, Steen. The Tenderest of Strings. Raleigh, NC: Regal House Publishing. 2022.