Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella

The characters in this striking debut short story collection wrestle with questions of success, failure, commitment, and responsibility.

Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella By Evgenia Citkowitz Farrar, Straus & Giroux 243 pp., $25

Do you view life as “harsh and unforgiving,” or as a renewable source of optimism? According to one of Evgenia Citkowitz’s resilient, down-but-not-out characters in Ether, her striking debut collection of stories, the difference may be “more a question of attitude and the rebound effect of what you put out there into the ether.”

If that sentiment sounds a little New-Age Californian, you’re not totally off. Citkowitz, the daughter of American composer and pianist Israel Citkowitz and Anglo-Irish Guinness heiress and novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood (whose first and third husbands were painter Lucian Freud and poet Robert Lowell, respectively), was educated in London and the United States. She is a screenwriter married to British actor Julian Sands, and they live in Los Angeles, where many of her stories are set.

To say that Citkowitz comes from a background steeped in the arts is putting it mildly. Yet, with the notable exception of the title novella, which concerns a blocked writer who marries a Hollywood star and secretly mines their life for material, Citkowitz mainly steers clear of show business, writers, art, and, it appears, her high-profile autobiography.

Citkowitz’s strength is social criticism, and she captures tensions and pretensions with killer details – such as the supposedly indifferent mistress who digs her nails into her departing lover’s arm when she leans in for a perfunctory kiss in front of her husband. Her characters struggle to find their moral bearings and their identity, often without benefit of a known father. Many are privileged, but not in parental love.

Although some of her stories are a bit thin, her best, including “The Bachelor’s Table,” are richly nuanced. When a new father, Jonathan, who feels estranged from his wife, young son, and unhelpful, boozy mother-in-law, buys a multi-purpose 18th-century “bachelor’s table” he spots in a Sag Harbor antique shop on Christmas Eve, his purchase raises all sorts of issues. The table is nearly identical to one that Jonathan’s absentee father showed him during one of their two meetings – which continues to haunt Jonathan as a test he failed, since it led to no further relationship.

Without being heavy-handed about it, Citkowitz endows this object with layers of meaning. Not only does Jonathan associate the table with his deadbeat father, a wealthy French art critic, but he buys it for a steal, later learning from the chagrined saleswoman that she inadvertently dropped a digit from the price, charging $3,300 instead of $33,000. Should he keep it anyway, even though he knows it’s not his wife’s taste? Should he pay the difference? Or should he return it? What’s at stake is his moral fibre and what sort of father and husband he’ll be.

“Sunday’s Child,” set in southern California, is about a mordantly funny, self-described fat white woman, an actor in sitcoms and voice-overs, with moral fibre aplenty. Her heart aches for the troubled black boy she adopted from a website called, especially when the parents at his Montessori school “scatter, or become very involved buckling the backpack” whenever she and Ambrose approach: “Anything to avoid talking to us.”

But she’s as critical of her own limitations as of others’. After dislodging the teenage girl she finds asleep in her backyard playhouse, she’s wracked with guilt: “Ambrose was essentially homeless when I took him in. Why wasn’t there room for one more?” she asks herself. She’s chagrined to recognize that what she’s afraid of isn’t the girl, but of facing “the terrifying sorrow in myself.”

More sober than ethereal, the title novella, “Ether,” is ambitious beyond its 116-page scope. Not altogether smoothly, Citkowitz addresses issues of success, failure, commitment, and responsibility by linking two sets of characters at extremes of the socioeconomic scale.

Her blocked novelist, William, is one of her more disturbing characters, in part because it isn’t clear how Citkowitz wants us to feel about him. We meet him during his ghoulishly unsentimental farewell tryst with his editor – who also happens to be his oldest friend’s wife and who is as hard as the nails she later digs into his arm. Stalled on his novel for years, he heads to California for a teaching gig, where he falls in love with Madeline, a hot young movie star. Just as he knew that sleeping with his editor and friend’s wife was “in no one’s interest,” he also knows that writing about his relationship with Madeline is a bad idea – yet he proceeds anyway.

After setting up William and Madeline, Citkowitz makes a jarring and initially baffling leap over the tracks into Barbara Ehrenreich territory, to a single mother who barely gets by waitressing at Denny’s. This woman remains stalwart despite having every reason to despair, including an autistic son whose obsession with Madeline becomes the fulcrum between the two halves of Citkowitz’s tale. The result is a disconcerting probe into various guises of failure.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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