The Human Act and Other Stories by Angela Lam

My review of The Human Act & Other Stories, by Angela Lam, All Things That Matter Press

Paperback Edition

These are real stories and as a writer, Angela Lam is the real thing. Set in California, the stories tell of women’s lives in urban-sprawl suburbia “too far from the beach, and too close to the desert.” Lonely and bored, they seek the company of anyone who will bring moments of friendship, passion or change to their lives. These women acknowledge the choices they have made and struggle to get back on track. “I had already chosen,” one says, “and my decision was not on a whim,” but “how lonely I was losing who I imagined myself to be.”

They overcome the negative twists and turns, some by choice, some by chance, of their lives by holding onto a hard inner core of hope for self-fulfillment, a light we all carry inside. They are always restless. Some jump at the opportunity to transform their lives and their relationships: “Dana falls in love with her future,” and in another story: “I was no longer married to Howard, just as I was no longer married to the What Ifs of the past.” Others hesitate: “I glanced away, afraid of my heart expanding, opening with possibilities.”

Rescue is a major theme, the act of rescuing, or being rescued. They can be simple acts of reaching out. These rescues appear to occur by coincidence, but are actually the culmination of choices made as a result of their longing and striving. At the same time, they have an element of pure luck about them. In the title story, “The Human Act,” Lam hits her stride. Here the story is told from the dog’s point of view, beginning with: “I see her feet first.” Marcus is a rescue, by the woman whose story he tells. She is a successful career woman with “a rambling, open field heart.” She brings in another stray, a man separated from his wife. During the emotionally abusive relationship that ensues, she struggles to keep her independent identity. Most of all, she is seeking a way out and the real affection she shares with her rescued dog helps lead the way.

Lam is adept at turns of phrase that catch both the physical and emotional and mental state of the characters and reinforce the themes. “A gulf of cold air swept down between us, rattling the leaves on the half-naked sycamores.” She uses all the senses. “Burnt chicken and ribs and charcoal saturated the thick gauzy air.” In the laundry room scenes, you can smell the detergent and hear the swoosh of the machines.

Among the stories are those of women in relationships with other women, or with their best friend’s husband or boyfriend. There is a fluidity of sexual attraction and its ties with an imagined future, a different identity, and ultimately, freedom. Many have had their chosen future disappear before their eyes at a young age: a father’s financial losses, or a husband’s career down-sized by an economic downturn. Marriage and children end college educations and potential careers. Others quit odd but oddly-fulfilling jobs to stay home with “baby and bubble baths.” These are women with few resources and little or no family support. However, nearly all have a woman friend who sticks with them through thick and thin. Some have a male friend who plays a support role but wishes for more.

The Human Act is an evocative, contemporary look at women’s lives. It’s a bracing, and sometimes abrasive, blast of fresh air, hot off the desert.

Mary Clark
Review posted on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/568367540

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