The emerald moors of Ireland lie a long way from the wheat fields of Carbondale, Ill., where Beth Lordan teaches writing. But this masterful storyteller knows all about spanning distances that seem unfathomable. Her new novel, inspired by a sabbatical in Galway, records the persistence of affection between a man and woman who remain strikingly different over their 30-year marriage.
"But Come Ye Back" opens on the day Mary and Lyle move into their new, very old home. Lyle has retired recently, and Mary has prevailed upon him to resist the orthopedic pull of Florida in favor of returning to the little Irish town of her childhood.
Decades earlier, she'd settled in Cleveland with her responsible American husband to raise their sons, assuming "she'd never move house again," but here they are across the ocean, amid paths and fields she recalls from girlhood.
"This whole undertaking was courageous," she thinks, and "Lyle was heroic, too, coming away with her to a foreign country where he knew nobody."
It sounds ironic to speak of courage and heroism in this context, but Lordan captures a kind of everyday bravery that's no less valuable for its tranquility. Mary and Lyle confront the challenges common to any long-married couple, including temptations to stray or settle. And like most couples, they face the unexpected problem of retirement: What on earth will we do with each other now, living together in a relationship that's suddenly unlike anything else we've experienced?
Lyle is a gruff, taciturn man who considers the precise and time-tested arrangement of his sandwich to be inviolate. He has no intention of taking up silly Irish idioms, as his wife does. "He called things their real names." But Mary has long ago made her peace with his rough edges. She's a woman of many small enthusiasms, which she knows must be carefully incubated before being exposed to Lyle. They enter their new house a little wary of each other.
"But Come Ye Back" greets an audience whose anticipation has already been whetted by the publication of five of these chapters in The Atlantic Monthly and Book Magazine. One of them, "The Man with His Lapdog," won an O. Henry prize in 2000. They're quiet stories with emotions like old stepping stones that have sunk beneath the surface. Bound in this arrangement as a novel, some of the chapters still read like individual masterpieces, but they all work exceptionally well together as the tale of a couple learning to understand the depth of their love.
After 34 years away from home, Mary has paved her new life back in Ireland with a series of little fantasies about the domestic pleasures she'll immediately enjoy with friends and family. In fact, she's polished these prememories to such a shine that they're inevitably scratched by Lyle's muffled complaints and her sister's old bossiness. But that's no matter. She's determined to keep disappointment at bay, and Lordan follows her mental gymnastics with a brilliant sense of wit that offers an embrace at the very moment it could turn to a jab.
After several years in Galway, the things that annoy Lyle about Ireland are about even with the things that please him. He loves Mary, Lordan writes, "although he is seldom aware that he does." In this precarious state, he meets an American couple on vacation. The wife is beautiful in a refined, charming way, but her husband has the ashen look of a dying man. Though Lyle exchanges only a few pleasantries with them on the beach each day, their striking devotion to each other incites in him a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with his own crusty personality and his suddenly more tedious wife.
All of Lordan's mastery is on display in this delicate portrayal of a man flustered by an adulterous thought - no less illicit and alarming to him for remaining just a thought (and by modern standards a charmingly chaste one). But in the end, his envy for this tragic American couple brings him back with refreshed appreciation to his own wife, his health, and his deeply satisfying marriage. As in so many other points in this novel, Lordan gets it just right, and manages to express the long-cultivated love that can't be articulated anymore but still makes its influence known.
Halfway through the book, Lyle must adjust to living alone, a challenge for which he is entirely unprepared. This second half of the book is comprised mostly of a novella that concentrates on those first weeks when Lyle is shocked by the force of his grief.
When his sons come to visit for a few days, the men find they have almost nothing to say to one another without Mary around to turn the crank of conversation. And Lyle must struggle to redesign his life again at a point when he thought everything was peacefully settled for good.
It's fair to say that nothing remarkable happens in these stories, and yet they're remarkable just the same. Part of the miracle of Lordan's fierce tenderness is her ability to catch melodies of comedy even through strains of grief. Again and again, she conveys the quiet thrill of a blessing to a mind that's given up hope. As Mary would say with studied Irish inflection, "Isn't it grand."
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.