From the first story in Alice Petersen’s sophomore collection, you know you are in the hands of a writer possessed of stellar skills. Worldly Goods is a multi-faceted diamond: its carbon base is the stuff of life, and its reflective power is dazzling. Petersen can take a small event and in a few pages create an entire world, one full of complex characters in meaningful everyday situations.
The first story, “Music Minus One,” is set in London. The main character, Brian Fitzgerald, ponders his life as he lies at the bottom of a flight of stairs after a fall. The focus of his thoughts is a world-renowned cellist whom he met decades earlier at a party. Four words capture the encounter: “crispness, movement, strings, and bows.” These words come back to him as he lies in pain at the foot of the stairs. That’s the genius of Petersen’s fiction: the precise and luminous word choice.
The stories are firmly grounded in reality, even if the characters occasionally inhabit the fringes. In “Dear Ian Fairfield,” Prudence Harper is a Latin teacher who, like Brian Fitzgerald, is reflecting on her life. Prudence is writing a series of unsent letters to a man whose mother she worked for when she was 19. The story deals with class differences, while also revealing the power of youthful experiences to affect people for the rest of their lives. In “A Nice, Clean Copy,” an Oxford academic has fixed and highly conservative ideas about poetry; when he marries a young woman he meets on vacation, he has no idea how narrow his views really are. On his 10-year anniversary he is shocked to discover that his wife is writing poetry, and even more shocked that she hasn’t told him (though this comes as no surprise to the reader).
The predominant mood in this collection is contemplative. No matter their age or status, the characters spend most of their time considering their choices and their roles in life. In “Nothing to Lose,” Constance works at a wool shop in Montreal. During a trip to Venice, her life changes, but not in any sentimental or romantic way: Petersen does not do sentimental. Every feeling is earned. In “The Fruits of Our Endeavours,” an embroidered sampler reveals a husband’s affair (or does it?). The man’s wife has the opportunity to burn the sampler, but refrains because “she would not waste the legacy of any woman’s hours.” This decision, and its attendant motivation, demonstrate Petersen’s ability to push her writing in surprising and remarkable directions, while nevertheless seeming completely natural.
The final story, “The Parisian Eye,” bookends the collection and returns to the importance of music from the opening entry. Story collections can frequently feel like random agglomerations, but this one shows meticulousness and creativity in the order and balance of the pieces, and the consequent rhythm the collection attains. The stories are unrelated except by the competence of their execution. A writer this good needs to be read.