A REVIEW OF
The Age of Discovery and Other Storie
The Ohio State University Press
Paperback, 192 pages
Hagenston demonstrates mastery, daring in new collection of stories
By Eliot Parker
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Skilled short story writing requires clear and concise descriptions as well as character development. In author Becky Hagenston’s fourth collection, “The Age of Discovery,” she blends the skills of a masterful storyteller who establishes the central situation early within each story and then includes many surprises and developments that take readers through amazing journeys replete with conclusions that are both abrupt and also exhilarating.
The collection spans various locales in Mississippi and across the globe in Europe. Hagenston places the characters within each story in situations where their past choices, current actions, and future plans collide in moments that, on the surface, reflect the banality of ordinary life—a man dreading a neighborhood cookout; the convivial energy that occurs during a board game night; and professors and students navigating a coexistence in a balletic dance of connection and avoidance.
However, these are not people behaving normally in ordinary circumstances. Instead, Hagenston gives us flawed characters stepping out of the normal roles readers think these people should occupy while they create new realities that are both poignant and entertaining.
In the story “Sharon by the Seashore,” we meet a woman who sells sex toys in Delray Beach, Florida. A weary woman who, in her past, has sold everything from makeup to life insurance has a new identity that draws the fawning praise of a group of women called the bird ladies, who willingly share details of their lives while probing facts about Sharon’s past and present life.
In the fast-paced and multilayered title story, “The Age of Discovery,” a couple are on a food tour of Lisbon, Portugal when one of the elderly men in the tour party goes missing. As the wife frantically annoys the tour guide and other guests with concern for a man she barely knows, her obsession to find him is the perfect foil for the growing divide that exists in her own marriage.
The husband had an affair with a colleague but is taken back by the wife. Meanwhile, their daughter, Leslie, has run away with Stuart Handley, her biology teacher who is nearly twice her age. The fissures within the marriage widen as the story unfolds, creating an emotional and physical gap that does not seem to be mendable. The ending presents an unexpected but satisfying conclusion.
One of the more surprising stories in the collection occurs in the opening pages. In the story “Seven Ravens,” Ned and Alexia have ended a bad first date. When Alexia calls Ned on Saturday morning and tells him that she sliced off her left finger chopping onions, she asks him if he will go to her house and retrieve the chopped chunk of the finger.
In a morbid, but humorous scene, Ned stumbles through Alexis’s kitchen, passing by trails and squalls of rotted food and blood splatter to locate the missing thumb. An ordinary story writer would have ended the story there, but Hagenston does not. Instead, the reader is treated to a story of two quirky, but lonely people who have few things in common, but discover that maybe they are just perfect for one another. This story is one of many examples in this collection of a writer in masterful control of narrative.
Hagenston’s stories are remarkable because everything that has occurred in the past impacts the characters’ present. The variations of plots in each of these stories is remarkable. Some stories will mystify readers while others will elicit feelings of wonderment or sadness. Each character is portrayed in honest, raw ways. Dialogue is crisp and frank–there is no innuendo hidden within words. Hagenston, who teaches writing at Mississippi State University, has masterfully created a work that is captivating and poignant and will leave readers thinking about the characters and their experiences long after the last page is turned.
Eliot Parker is the PenCraft and Feathered Quill Book Award winning author of the short story collection “Snapshots” and teaches writing at the University of Mississippi.