three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
user_rating: 
0

Stories

A-The Empty FamilyColm Tóibín is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and playwright. Born in Ireland, his recent works include The Master ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2004), Mothers and Sons ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007), and Brooklyn ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2009).

The Story: In these nine stories, Tóibín's solitary narrators reflect on love, loss, and unfulfilled desires. In "One Minus One," a son returns to visit his dying mother despite their dysfunctional relationship. In "Two Women," a brittle, aging set designer recalls her first love. A woman who once fled Franco's Spain returns to a changed country in "The New Spain." A formulaic thriller writer recollects his sexual experiences with a schoolmate in "The Pearl Fishers." And in "The Street," two Pakistani immigrants find love among the squalid conditions of working-class Barcelona. In each story, the characters, many whom have deferred life's opportunities for too long, return home to sadness and disappointment.
Scribner. 288 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781439138328

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Colm Tóibín is a fine lyricist of yearning, exile and regret. ... [His] skill is to tell us, as an undertow to the personal stories, and not as explicit commentary, a great deal about the history and politics of 70s Spain, or about the ‘new' Ireland." Hermione Lee

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Though his dreamy narratives are often associative rather than linear, they wind up feeling, through Tóibín's magic, precise and perfectly plotted. Even more, Tóibín's attention to language equals the empathy he pays his thoroughly authentic characters." Don Waters

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] few of them--including ‘The New Spain,' ‘Barcelona, 1975' and ‘The Colour of Shadows'--need more narrative drive. But in the best of these stories, including ‘Silence' and ‘The Street' as well as ‘The Pearl Fishers,' Tóibín generates drama and suspense without ever sacrificing the intensely lyrical writing that he has always delivered." Mike Fischer

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His best stories are rough magic--modulated, velvety, loping, evocative, sad, rich with complex humanity. ... They are so good that one is willing to view less successful stories as noble experiments, exploratory sketches of a prose master." Claude Peck

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"[T]he author, who is gay himself, has created a set of gay characters so involved in their own feelings that these wither from sheer airlessness. ... There is even less feeling and even more graphically rendered sex, bordering on the pornographic." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

There are many gems in Tóibín's latest collection, but many critics thought the collection, as a whole, uneven. They described some of the lesser-quality tales as cold and humorless, with undeniable "soggy moments" (Guardian). Explicit sex scenes proved off-putting to others. But most reviewers adored "The Street," the Pakistani romance set in Spain, and described it as "comic, outlandish, and oddly moving: crass and innocent at the same time" (Boston Globe). Overall, while critics generally praised The Empty Family, even they acknowledged that the author's slower pace and relatively scant humor aren't for everyone.