You Have Reached Your Destination
by Louise Marburg
EastOver Press, 2022
Reviewed by Jody Hobbs Hesler
If you haven’t yet discovered Louise Marburg’s stories, you’re in for a treat with her third collection, You Have Reached Your Destination, just out from Eastover Press and winner of the 2021 Eastover Prize for Fiction. As the title promises, every story drives us toward a destination. Each is unique to its respective story, but most are tied up with death, the multifaceted obsolescence of aging, and an accompanying existential aloneness. We encounter a dying stepmother, a dying neighbor, a brother’s heart attack, a woman struggling with fertility issues, another experiencing menopause—of mind, it seems, as well as body—and a variety of humiliations that strip characters as bare as death and dying do. All the while, Marburg’s smart prose and dry wit sit firmly in the driver’s seat.
One of my favorite things about Marburg’s stories is how they unfurl toward satisfying surprises, organically following each story’s wild magic. In “Double Happiness,” an unwitting Gretchen arrives at what she assumes is her boyfriend Evan’s apartment for a party. “Boyfriend” turns out to be an aspirational term. She’s never been to his apartment, can’t find him, and when she meets a man who introduces himself as Evan’s brother, the fact of a brother is news to her. Eventually, she agrees to leave the party with the brother, who takes Gretchen on a wild adventure, including flaming cocktails and fortune tellers. I won’t reveal the final twist, but it exposes Gretchen’s absolute ignorance of what she wants in life, halting the story’s carnival momentum with a brittle snap.
The note at the center of “Outrageous” leads us toward another well-earned ending. Possibly my favorite in the collection, I originally read it when it ran in the Atticus Review back in January 2021. It kicks off with Lydia discovering a violent, sexual note on her desk at work. Her first reaction to it is aloof: “Because correcting errors in punctuation and grammar was what Lydia did every day, she was distracted by the lack of a comma after ‘bitch.’” But as each character in the story responds to the note—some with concern, others with doubt—her feelings about it, and about herself, shift, even while the note itself remains static, but for the small change after Lydia succumbs to the urge to punctuate it properly.
Characters who trade in private thoughts that skirt social niceties are another of Marburg’s specialties. For example, in “Even-Steven,” when the narrator’s stepmother calls with news that she’s dying, the narrator admits, “Dying for what? was my first thought because she was always ‘dying’ for something, usually a cocktail or a cigarette.” In the title story, Gretchen’s sister-in-law calls to deliver news of her brother’s heart attack, and her internal reaction is, “Of course he did…Glenn smoked a pack of Marlboros a day. The only mystery was when it would happen. So it happened. He survived.” And, in “Alouette” when Penelope’s doctor mentions that “‘thirty-seven is on the downslope of fertility,’” rather than digesting this unsavory news, she blithely corrects him, subtracting five years from her age. She even pencils her revision into the doctor’s file.
Don’t be fooled by these pithy jumping off points, though. Marburg’s characters seem to trip lightly into life and death territory, but, once they’ve crossed over, they don’t bristle, and they never wallow in sentimentality. If anything, I’d describe Marburg’s approach as anti-sentimental, refusing to give in to melodrama, or to turn away once raw emotion enters the scene.
In the case of the dying stepmother, her illness is quite real. As she puts it, “‘Anyway long story short I have tumors everywhere—bones, brain, liver, you name it.” The narrator characterizes her relationship with her stepmother before this point as ambivalent, yet the two forge a bond over the stepmother’s dying days. We smart along with the narrator when the errant actual daughter, fresh off drug rehab, usurps her bedside post, depriving her of the real intimacy her long vigil had fostered. When Amelia visits her heart-attack-stricken brother and his family in “You Have Reached Your Destination,” her indifference to their lives eventually yields a peek into the hidden tragedies of the siblings’ shared childhood, opening the story into quasi-horror territory as we realize Amelia is running from a frightening past no one else will even acknowledge. And, in “Alouette,” circumstances eventually force Penelope to question her hapless dismissal of medical realities and to face the possibility that she’ll never have a child, a major blow for someone who seems to equate having a baby with having any love in her life at all.
Frank, unsparing physical descriptions scatter through the collection like little gems, too. The main character’s painting assistant in “The Weather of Menopause” is “a stunningly unattractive boy, with a horsey, pock-marked face and snaggled gray teeth he kept hidden by never smiling.” In “Vivian Delmar,” Eleanor’s father is smaller than she remembered, “like a troll,” and both parents “wore T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, like a million other people at that time of year, but the clothes looked like castoffs they might have cadged from Goodwill.” The main character’s sister’s boyfriend in “Love Is Not Enough” is “as big as a yeti and had a forest of dark hair on his arms.” These terse, crisp phrases bring life to the most essential qualities of each character, and often also of whichever character is rendering the description.
Marburg’s writing is whip smart; her closely observed characters run the gamut from innocent to wickedly spiteful; and her plots pop with unexpected, but beautifully inevitable, endings throughout this collection, as well as her two prior collections, No Diving Allowed from Regal House Publishing and The Truth About Me from WTAW Press. Her stories balance the wry with the deeply felt, the humorous with the human, every time.