Fiction Book Review: Local Girls Alice Hoffman, Paperback, Local Girls

Prior to Local Girls, Alice Hoffman had written thirteen novels and collections of short stories, most concerning intense, realistic relationships between family members, friends, and/or lovers. Unlike other writers such as Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin who mine these same themes, Hoffman creates texts riddled with freakish physical and/or natural phenomena which serve as tropes for her metaphysics. Sometimes these events have comic purposes, but typically they convey literal as well as symbolic meanings. In Here on Earth (1997), for example, the main character falls in love with an orphan brought home by her father. When the two kiss or get close to each other, each feels not only an emotional heat but also an intense physical heat which eventually breaks into real flames that threaten to consume them. Later the reader learns that the man is abusive and the fire is symbolic of his abuse. In Seventh Heaven (1990), a man sees a literal wolf skulking through his neighbor’s house, though the reader soon learns the wolf may be the woman’s much younger lover perceived as an emotional wolf by everyone but her. At their best, these moments of magic serve as shortcuts to understanding emotional situations and add an imaginative dimension to Hoffman’s work which transcends a more cynical realism.

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Local Girls, a collection of fifteen interrelated short stories chronicling the coming-of-age of wisecracking but naïve Gretel Samuelson, continues Hoffman’s penchant for Magical Realism. In the first story of the collection, “Dear Diary,” Gretel opens by saying:

One thing I’ve learned is that strange things do happen. They happen all the time. Today, for instance, my best friend Jill’s cat spoke. . . . We experienced a miracle and now we’re looking for more, although Franconia, the town we live in, is not known for such things.

Hoffman’s text lives up to this opening premise. Jill’s cat speaks, and other more serious miracles occur as well. In a bizarre trade-off, Gretel’s grandmother requests that her life be taken so that her daughter Frances may live. Almost immediately, Frances’s cancer goes into remission and Gretel’s grandmother dies. Later, in “How to Talk to the Dead,” Gretel watches the “ghost” of her grandmother magically change the low-calorie meals at Gretel’s father and new stepmother’s house to high- calorie, butter-enriched food as a way to pay back the father for leaving the family. In “The Boy Who Wrestled with Angels,” Gretel’s brother confronts “angelic” fire during the several occasions when he almost dies. In one occurrence his shirt is literally burned off his body. In the most dramatic example of this phenomena, “Examining the Evidence,” her Aunt Margot is visited by a series of signs including a large bolt of electrical energy, a profusion of spiders, and an isolated hailstorm that destroys her roof. If that were not enough, in “Still Among the Living,” Margot trades her two-carat diamond ring to a faith healer who tells her to eat an avocado with herbs and make love once under the moon and once in the shadows in order to get pregnant. Although Margot has been declared infertile, this method works and she bears a child.

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While Hoffman enjoys using magical moments as a way to emphasize emotional and intellectual extremes, the search for a miracle does not extend to making life easier for Gretel or any character in this collection. Gretel’s grandmother, mother, and brother all die during the course of the book, and she is estranged from her father when he remarries and from her best friend Jill when she marries. Despite these hardships, Gretel continues to believe in miracles because of well-placed “signs,” another element of Hoffman’s magic, which provide moments of hope for her characters. At the beginning of the first story, Gretel and her mother look for stars, one such sign, and at the end of the last story, “Local Girls,” Gretel and her childhood friend Jill spy a firefly which, as they watch, “rises so high it’s impossible to tell where it is among the stars.” Gretel considers the firefly a star on earth whose life will be short unless he decides to go back to the heavens. Later, when Gretel indicates that the firefly must have decided to live because it flew away, the third-person narrator suggests, “Some things, after all, are as simple as that.” This closing scene intimates that surviving has been Gretel and Jill’s miracle, though they have used stars consistently to help in that quest.

Water also serves to rejuvenate the characters—Gretel, particularly. The first story, “Dear Diary,” ends with one of Hoffman’s more lyrical passages about Gretel’s belief in water as a miracle:

You had to wonder who all these people in their cars were leaving behind and who they were driving toward, and if they knew that in the distance, the echo of their tires on the asphalt sounded like a river, and that to someone like me, it could seem like the miracle I’d been looking for.

At the end of the collection, in “Still Among the Living,” Gretel, who has been mourning her mother’s death for an entire year, wearing the same black wool dress every day, suddenly realizes she has to go on living the moment she jumps into her aunt’s swimming pool: “The whole world turned fish-cool and silent. When she surfaced and began to swim laps, all she heard was water. So much liquid was an extreme relief; soon she began to shiver, not with cold but with pure pleasure.” Gretel frequently sees water as an opportunity for spiritual freshening. Even when water separates her from the rest of the world she uses these moments to gain perspective on her experiences.

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One must suspend disbelief in order to value Hoffman’s use of these magical moments. For the most part, Hoffman makes it easy to see the possibilities behind these tropes and images as sort of metaphysical symbols. In scenes such as the one where Gretel’s brother wrestles with literal fire, Hoffman makes the use of Magical Realism more credible, but when the purpose seems odd or ill-suited to the occasion—such as the scene with the ghostly grandmother—it often pulls the reader too far out of the text.

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Having Gretel as the main character helps Hoffman maintain control over her various magical elements since Gretel, as protagonist, is cynical in her stance on life. Though she seems to trust in signs, even wait for them, she never thinks that situations will work out positively. The stories are told from different narrative perspectives— “Dear Diary,” “Flight,” “Tell the Truth,” “Fate,” “Bake at 350°,” and “The Rest of Your Life” feature Gretel as first-person narrator; “How to Talk to the Dead,” “True Confession,” “The Boy Who Wrestled with Angels,” “Examining the Evidence,” “Devotion,” “Still Among the Living,” and “Local Girls” all feature third-person limited omniscient narrators. Thus, Gretel tells her story some of the time, and the reader hears about her objectively in other stories. Because Gretel is privileged in this way—more than half the stories have her at the helm or the story is directly about her—the collection serves as a chronicle of Gretel’s growing up and of the experiences that shape her life. This arrangement serves as one of the key unifying structures of the collection and underscores how the stories treat Gretel’s coming-of-age through a series of events, many of them tragic.

Though Hoffman’s use of Gretel as the central character works to make the collection seem novelistic, this unification becomes misleading. In the last five stories, Hoffman feels compelled to focus on characters who have not been the focus of any earlier story. While these stories are entertaining and well developed, they do not add much further knowledge to an understanding of Gretel, a feature the other stories in the collection offer. Furthermore, as soon as the stories begin to revolve around other characters, Gretel does not appear again as a first-person narrator. Because of this shift, the last half of the collection loses the thread of connectedness, diminishing Gretel’s voice and, thus, the force of the collection as a unified form.

The story about Gretel’s brother, Jason, exemplifies this problematic turn. In “The Boy Who Wrestled with Angels,” Hoffman examines Jason’s downward spiral. The story opens with his first near-death experience as a result of heroin injection and ends with Jason, alone under an overpass, administering his fatal dosage. In previous stories, the reader learns a few things about Jason’s life—that he had been awarded a scholarship to Harvard, that he was brilliant and handsome, and that he had thrown away most of his talents working at a local grocery store. Though Gretel has talked about him in other stories, Jason has never seemed an important influence in her life. Thus, when the collection shifts dramatically to Jason’s story one expects, at least, some further links to Gretel and the narrative thread that has tied the collection together. A look into Jason’s motivation also seems called for at this point. This story provides neither; instead, it seems curiously driven to descriptions of the seedy existence of someone who has chosen drugs over life. Part morality tale, part drug exposé, the story features some of the more dramatic moments of Magical Realism—death as a fiery angel that sits on Jason’s chest at various moments. Even these apt tropes do not help fit the story into this collection.

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The last four stories suffer from varying degrees of this same structural problem. While “Devotion,” a story about Gretel’s mother’s death, seems to be more appropriately included in the collection since Gretel has been grieving over her mother’s cancer diagnosis and suffering since early in the collection, the elongated descriptions of her death—placed only one chapter from her brother’s equally dramatic death—overload the last half of the book with tragedy. Even placing the highly comic story about her Aunt Margot’s miraculous meeting with her second husband near the end of the collection does not lift the dark tenor from the concluding stories.

Yet the most unsatisfying aspect of the entire collection comes in the end story, “Local Girls.” At this point, Hoffman tries to bring the collection full circle by placing Gretel with her childhood friend Jill in a sort of homage to the sustaining power of friendship. There are two problems with this arrangement: First, Jill has not been the focus of any story since the beginning of the collection, nor has she been the sustaining force in Gretel’s life. Thus, placing Jill in this pivotal story seems forced and unlikely. Second, the story, told by a third-person narrator, loses all the narrative bounce and personality which begins the collection.

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This loss of voice plagues the value of the collection as a whole. Because Hoffman’s early stories, told from Gretel’s first-person perspective, showcase her lyrical ability as well as her considerable talent creating a believable and sympathetic main character, one expects the rest of the stories to live up to this promise. Though her use of Magical Realism adds poetic and symbolic underpinning to all the stories, as a collection, Local Girls loses its novelistic structure, and, as a result, disappoints readers expecting a more unified collection.

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