In my favorite story, “Accepted,” a student pretends to have gotten into Stanford, going so far as to audit classes and join the campus R.O.T.C. program in the hopes that the school might eventually admit her before her parents catch on that she has let them down. Throughout the ruse, she and her father show their affection for each other only through vocabulary words they’ve learned together in study drills. “Assiduous,” he tells his daughter out of pride for her so-called achievement, “his praise for my hard work.” She replies in kind; with the word “sagacity,” she “thanked my father for his wisdom.” These inventive codes of communication — dogged in their attempts to convey respect, honesty, affection — abound throughout the collection, laying bare the burdens of the unspoken.
SO WE CAN GLOW
By Leesa Cross-Smith
246 pp. Grand Central. $26.
The characters who populate “So We Can Glow” aren’t afraid to state plainly either their bold overtures or their fumbling missteps. They name their desires, and go after them without reservation.
Though the 42 stories here often masquerade as slices of domestic life, the scale of the emotional trajectories is treated with the weight of the epic. They are sexy and sly. The dialogue winks and sparks on the page, making every story feel like a flirt. The collection overloads the senses. Even the “sunset light ached,” “lime tastes like good luck,” a woman lusts after a man who stinks of “hot wild onions in burnt brown-sugar dirt,” and pleasure can be found when you “lift up” after pressing on a “yellowish-blue, purple-black bruise”: Cross-Smith’s descriptions are filled with equal amounts of violence and tenderness.
The author’s experimentation with form — one story is structured as a play script, others as exchanges over text or email — doesn’t prove as rewarding as the way she plays with conventions of linked narratives. Throughout, characters from earlier stories reappear to nudge us in the ribs, these rewarding inside jokes building depth and resonance.
It is the strength of the female characters, though, that truly binds this collection together. Women appear to sacrifice for others, but at the root of those acts of generosity lies an unabashed commitment to making their lives exactly as they want them to be. In “Get Rowdy,” the narrator sets out to secretly repay the debts of the man she secretly loves by offering sexual favors to his creditors. But by the end, it becomes clear she’s performed this penance so she can rationalize being with him, the only way to wipe his slate clean enough that she can admit her feelings out loud.
In one story, a wife commits herself to helping her husband become as electric as she knows herself to be. “Her husband was a good man and she loved him, but he didn’t know how to be special, how to glow. She said it was pretty simple and she’d teach him. There was no big secret. You just had to let the things in your heart get real dark first.” The women throughout this collection are constantly being revealed by a powerful inner light.