Choosing a new book is a tactile process for me, a form of meditation. I touch bindings, scan covers, leaf through pages. Invariably I find myself returning to a certain shelf again and again, brushing my hands over titles that startle or inspire me. Eventually I'll refuse to return something to its shelf and realize I've made my choice. But after reading This Life She's Chosen, a new book by first-time author Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, I realized that having been left to my own eclectic habits, I never would have found this gem.
New authors (as well as some old ones) often have little to do with how their book is marketed, so I don't blame Lunstrum for the glossy cover: a photo of a woman wearing a pony tail and sundress, walking barefoot in the grass with her hands over her face. It strikes me as trite -- as if what's contained within the pages is little more than chick lit. And it doesn't begin to do justice to the work of the author, who, it becomes apparent during the first of the 10 short stories in the book, has visited much greater depths than any chatty shopping-and-dating novel. Granted, we all know the adage about judging books by their covers, but pinning the stigma of chick lit on someone who writes real literature -- and reads it -- is both unfair and unnecessary.
A western Washington native who now resides east of the Cascades, Lunstrum takes readers on a sensory tour of the West Coast, from Anchorage to Omak, from Spokane to Seattle and on down to northern California, detailing the landscape with the same sensitive focus as she does her characters. This Life is delicate in nature, bringing forth the subtlest tensions between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. Lunstrum's language is deft and fluid, but it is also very cautious. There remains a distance between the reader and the true nature of the women she scripts. There is no clear, unabashed entrance into the neurosis, the nerves, the breakdowns. There's no human mess to be found in these pages. What's reflected is only a passive sorrow -- a muted, pale, private disillusionment with life choices. The stories are so quiet. You imagine clocks ticking around these women in their living rooms; you hear wind rustling the trees, as they stand, stunned or pensive. It's from within this soft insight that the messages emerge, messages about grace and letting go. Luckily, the glossy cover slips off, and what remains is the refined work of an emerging local author.