When Ernest leans forward, his breath is warm and sticky on Barbara’s neck. She can feel her hairs stiffen in response, and a queer vibration passes down her spine, as though a part of that knotted bone had become, momentarily, gelatinous.

It has been a lousy day. Originally I intended to review Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, a book I have kept on the back-burner for months now. Unfortunately our family dog fell ill, so it’s been a day filled with trips back and forth from vet surgeries and drives out to a pet hospital.

We’re a bit weary now. So I chose a slimmer volume to review for today’s entry. Tomorrow I will return to Mantel’s larger novel and give it its due.

Inventing the Abbots and Other Stories contains several shorts, each a commentary on contemporary sexual mores. The title story is the first within the collection, concerning a family of three daughters and the passions they inspire in two brothers.

The younger sibling, Doug, is our narrator and he describes how his brother Jacey falls in and out of love with each of the Abbot sisters. The titular family rule the social set of the small town of Haley. An invitation to one of their many birthday or coming out parties is considered an entry to the social upper crust.

The title is arrived at courtesy of Jacey and Doug’s mother, a war widow who recognizes that her eldest son’s affairs are evidence of a need for affection and security which she cannot provide. Doug’s incredulous narration reveals how innocently he viewed each of the social gatherings he attended at the Abbots, little realizing how little regard they had for his own family. Jacey’s attraction to the daughters seems born out of some compulsion relating to his feelings of resentment due to being ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’.

By choosing to tell the story from the Doug’s point of view, Miller disguises the real purpose of her tale. For the three girls within the Abbot house-hold are described as objects, signs of social status and a lifestyle that they find themselves trapped within. They are afforded no independence from the wishes of their family, from the high regard with which they are held by the community at large and so the romantic interest that Jacey shows in them is in fact entirely removed from their selves.

My favourite story within the collection is Appropriate Affect where an elderly grandmother seizes the opportunity of a stay in hospital to let her husband and family know exactly what she thinks of them. It’s a brilliant little satire on the lies families tell themselves to maintain their orderly worlds. Slides examines the dilemma of naked photos outlasting a relationship, a somewhat familiar problem in today’s world of youtube, facebook and camera phones.

Each story concerns issues of sexuality. Each description of a failing marriage, or relationships strained by infidelity and deception, is infused with a delicate sense of poignancy.

This is a series of well-told tales of love and lust that recognize the frailties of the human heart. Perfectly poised and delicate.

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