Henry James, acknowledged by sophisticated readers of fiction as "The Master," wrote short stories and full-length, even length-y novels, of course, but waxed eloquent about the novella. This form, the "blessed and beautiful nouvelle,” he employed in works such as "The Aspern Papers," 98 pages, and "The Turn of Screw," 133 pages. He found this length a kind of Greek golden mean, long enough to cover the subject thoroughly but not a door-stopper. A novella could be read at one sitting by a late-19th-century reader so as to maintain a unity of effect.
Theodora Bishop, a recent master of fine arts graduate at the University of Alabama, has published poems and short stories, but "On the Rocks" is her debut full-length fiction, published by Texas Review Press, which champions the novella.
The story, 138 pages, is told by Eva Marino, a young woman in the seaside town of Ship Bottom, who is moving over the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is in therapy with a counselor named Shiloh, although for months she remained mute. Eva has a wry, not to say sarcastic, yet injured attitude. It took me a few pages to get on her quirky wavelength. She is reliable enough, not deceptive, but also clearly not well. Her narrative is part farce, part tragedy.
She had been working at the magazine "Eat Right!" where Eva gained an extensive readership for her column on kale. This was hard work for she found kale a "sucky vegetable." "Devising something to say about kale was like snatching at clouds. Clouds upon clouds of smelly kale heads.” She thought of it as "wild cabbage's dirty cousin."
But the readers loved it, so when Eva, coming unglued, went to resign she was given three months off with pay. She was "the face of kale" and there were plans for articles on "Christmas Kale Salad!, Garlicky Kale Stuffed Chicken!, Meatball-Kale Minestrone!"
Eva's breakdown makes her less and less able to function, even to get out of bed and stop binge-watching “Midsomer Murders.” She, like many of us, found them addictive but "wondered who in their right mind would choose to live in the villages of Midsomer, and how there were even any villagers left alive to prey on.”
In any case, her breakdown seems to the reader well-earned.
Five years earlier, Eva's father had died at 55 of a heart attack. His face had been "precipitously pink" but Eva attributed the color to too much lobster. Eva and her mother, Leonora, mourned, but now Leonora, a genuinely eccentric and fascinating character, is about to remarry, with Eva as maid of honor. The groom-to-be is Ted Turbine, the prosperous owner of a used car dealership, "The Lemon Tree." To Eva, Turbine "resembled one of those dopey Pekinese that impulse moves altruistic chumps to raise."
What does Leonora expect? Just money? Does she love the owner of The Lemon Tree?
What does Ted Turbine expect? If he expects fidelity, he will be out of luck, because Leonora is irrepressible. For years, she had had an affair with their neighbor Finn, while Mr. Marino "travelled the country peddling handmade cuckoo clocks ...." Did Leonora ever love her husband, Eva's dad?
Eva herself has, since childhood, loved Finn's son, Sebastian, who has recently drowned under mysterious circumstances.
Bishop's method here is to reveal small bits of the puzzle, to foreshadow, entice, and it works pretty well.
Mother and daughter move through the ritual of bridal shower, sessions at "Fountain of You Yoga," a retreat at Copperhead Spa and Resort, and the choosing of the wedding dress at Consignment Castle: the "bodice was ... odorous of antiperspirant."
By the conclusion, we know mostly what has happened. We do not know whether these two women will have a future.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.