Review: “The Threepenny Review” Spring 2011 Fiction

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Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone.” We revisit Mr. Berry’s fictional rural Kentucky town of Port William in this story constructed out of a subtle plot and beautiful stand-alone scenes. The title refers to a choice made by Mr. Berry’s oft cast main character Andy Catlett to live with and support his then recently widowed grandmother. Though considered “odd,” it’s an arrangement Andy savors, as it keeps him connected to what he calls the “home place,” to the nature around him. Farm life and work in pre-WWII Port William has a beauty and even artistry to it, colored by a simplicity and freedom from “the litter of alternatives” (nobody “who spoke so of ‘changing jobs’ ever spoke of the job he wanted to change to”). But freedom, we are told, is balanced by responsibility. When in the end, Andy gets caught up in a tree-climbing chase after a squirrel, it is at the expense of his duties as his grandmother’s helper and ward. So entranced is he by the idea of capturing the “beautiful” squirrel (a nice juxtaposition with the freedom afforded by nature), that the joy of it causes him to shirk the responsibility that acts as counterpoint to freedom. It’s a forgivable joy now bittersweetly out of reach, as we learn that those very trees he’d climbed up had since been cut down.

Shashi Bhat’s “What You Can Live Without.” Delightful read. Having lost her job as a result of the recession, Aarthi finds herself forced into frugality. She even finds beauty in it. As she goes job-hunting, a chance peek at a hidden folder in her parents’ computer after using their scanner (to scan transcripts for an application) uncovers a personal ad they’d written for her. Like most traditional Indian families, they want to see their daughter married off, albeit in an arranged manner. Out of rebellion, she preemptively and proactively starts to date John, who at first blush with his thriftiness seems the perfect match, someone she can “make love to…in a pile of coupons.” Through the course of dating him for several months, going dutch all the way, Aarthi learns the difference between saving up for bargain-hunting and just plain hoarding. She grows to understand John as a dead end:  All the money he’s accumulating will never be spent on her. Unlike Aarthi’s father, who “knew when it was worth it to spend,” John is just a miser. (Interestingly, Aarthi’s parents are happily married, contrary to the glum depictions we are fed of arranged marriages). In the end, Aarthi gives in to the possibility of an arrangement with one of the wealthy men her parents had set her up with before. Better to be wealthy and giving in finances and love than to be stingy in either.

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