'A lesson in Manners': Collection compiles tales of longing, revealing deep desires

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The characters in the ten stories that make up Misty Urban’s “A Lesson in Manners” are bound together by longing. The Muscatine author’s characters are hoping against hope for change in their lives.

Some long for health for a direly ill loved one. Some long for a change in their relationships--for independence or for closeness. One yearns for a breakthrough in her career and for a child. Another aches for serenity after the loss of her sister. The collection’s one male protagonist longs to connect with a woman who goes through his checkout line each week.

The collection, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award, is lovely from beginning to end. While the pining for change links her stories, Urban employs different tones and forms to create a collection that offers readers variation on the through line. Her characters, in even the briefest of the stories, are fully realized, their hopes, fears, and disappointments vital on the page.

Urban leavens the heartbreak of her stories with flashes of humor, even when characters are at their lowest point.

Here, in “The Keeping of the Counts,” Urban dexterously includes a light line about family history in a dark passage as a mother considers what might have caused her son’s illness:

“She did this to him—of course she did—he is the fruit of her womb, is he not?...No one in her family had ever had cancer…Baldness ran in her family, minor forms of insanity, the urge to knit, an affinity for cheap beer. Maybe it was all those years at a desk job, staring a computer…Overexposure to electromagnetic fields mutating the genes she passed on to Joseph…Those are her tumors.”

“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson” is perhaps my favorite story in the collection. The title character has taken the name of the father who abandoned her as a stage name, and she is plotting to get pregnant without informing the carefully selected father. Here, she lays bare her longing:

“If it were a matter of just having a kid I’d adopt one, though from what I’ve heard it’s a lot harder to be picked as an adoptive parent than it is to get knocked up. But I want my blood in my child, I want flesh of my flesh, all that carnal biblical stuff. I want to feel her growing on the insides of my body, the little alien talking to mission control.”

“A Lesson in Manners” is the work of a sure-handed storyteller with insight into the heart and its deepest desires.

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