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Patricia Henley

Patricia Henley’s first novel, Hummingbird House, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999 and the New Yorker Fiction Prize in 2000. Her second novel, In the River Sweet, was published by Pantheon in 2002 and released in paperback in 2004.

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"Henley writes with the clear advantage of knowing more than seems possible about how human beings love, lose, and continue to live. A brilliant, important collection of stories."

– Robin Black

"Patricia Henley is one of our culture's finest chroniclers of the human heart."

– Robert Olen Butler

"This collection, full of glittering insights and moral complexity, rewards the reader's attention in the best way."

– Margot Livesey

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Other Heartbreaks

No Refunds in Case of Inclement Weather

03/19/12

I once saw a video of a guitar duel between Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King. It was a brilliant exchange between two brilliant guitarists until Vaughn went for broke, tearing away with that manic energy he could summon — wild, loud, and very impressive. B.B. King nodded, kind of tipped his hat, and stood there thinking a second while the band played. When he was ready, he answered with just one note, just one, kept alive with that inimitable hummingbird vibrato. Vaughn immediately conceded defeat, put down his guitar, and left the stage. It’s an old cliché, but true: sometimes excellence means knowing when to shut the hell up.

Henley writes with that same confidence, the mastery of details, and the same knowledge of just what to say and when. Her new story collection, Other Heartbreaks, is at once elegant in its simplicity and masterful in its complexity, rich in its sincerity and even more so in its austerity. While each story deals almost exclusively with the inner lives, with the hearts, of her characters, Henley actually tells us very little about them.

“Meg wore dark glasses on the plane,” she writes in “Sun Damage,” a story about a woman traveling home for her father’s funeral. “She had not cried yet and expected to at any moment. She expected her eyes eventually to be puffy and tender to the touch.” Visiting the brother she barely knows to reign in a mother she doesn’t want to see, Meg floats through the story, strangely apart from everything going on around her, unexplainably so until Henley reveals the loneliness and terror of her childhood. In the end, when Meg and her mother, Hannah, are finally reunited, it becomes apparent how much they each have changed. However, the damage is done and the distances between Meg and everyone around her may be unbridgeable.

“No Refunds in Case of Inclement Weather,” about a lesbian couple and their drifting apart, comes to life through a similar economy. There are no big fights, no major drama, and no real reason their relationship ends, much like real life. Henley doesn’t need to tell us about the heartbreak of realizing that the deliciousness is gone from your relationship, of watching your loved one change in ways neither of you understand. Almost everyone has been there, watching the inevitability of something unfold, knowing you can’t change it.

Other Heartbreaks is a beautiful book, told with the sparse eloquence and soul of a blues master. Patricia Henley covers the same kind of theme in each of the stories in this book, but like B.B. King she manages to make each story a unique, living thing.

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