Dorene O’Brien’s collection of short stories, What It Might Feel like to Hope, surprises and delights the reader on every page. Eleven stories, whose titles are irresistible invitations–”Eight Blind Dates Later,” “Tom Hanks Wants a Story,” “Pocket Philosopher”–take the reader into the lives of characters on the threshold of change.
In “Turn of the Wind” a scientist specializing in crystallography, facing the onset of dementia, leaves the lab and builds weathervanes for a hobby. A weathervane, he says, “is a story on a stick,” it “offers beauty without the hope of anything more.” Faith, the main character in “Falling Forward,” takes responsibility for her dysfunctional neighbor, Ed, “a creased and rumpled man with doom etched on his face.” She is alone, and he is alone but for a lizard named Little Richard who figures prominently in the story’s climax, which holds out the promise of “falling forward into a new life.”
In “Honesty Above All Else,” along with the title of the story, O’Brien deploys a skilled writer’s second device for grabbing the reader, a smart first sentence: “I’ve never told anyone this story, and I’m only telling you now because Mrs. O’Leary is dead.” These first sentences aren’t just springboards; they’re catapults. Like this, in “A Short Distance Behind Us”: “Braelynn and I have been operating at the intersection of I love you and Fuck off for the last year.” And like this, in “Reaping: “Her hair was pulled up into a plastic bag, and red dye trickled down her face and neck as she stood on the front porch trembling.” And here, in “Little Birds”: “May told Dina to take the chair, or she’d regret it for the rest of her life.”
Five of these stories are first person narrative, five are third person, and one, the Tom Hanks piece, subtitled “An Anatomy of a Tale” (it might also be subtitled “What It Might Feel like to Write”) is at times first, second, and third.
Technically accomplished, emotionally taut, always captivating, these vivid stories are little worlds of conflict, pain, beauty, and hope. They are richly imagined and deeply satisfying. Dorene O’Brien has written a truly beautiful book.