I just finished Jacob M. Appel’s short story collection Einstein’s Beach House so I thought I’d tell y’all about it, because I think it would make good beach / lakeside / train reading.
The book starts out with “Hue and Cry,” a story about two little girls who decide to investigate (i.e. break into) the house next door. Why are they interested in the house? Because a registered sex-offender has just moved there. I think this story is a fitting opening for Einstein’s Beach House: it prepares us for the other stories, none of which are any less odd.
The title story revolves around a misprint in a AAA guidebook, which results in people believing this particular family’s home used to be Einstein’s beach house (when really, the house number got switched up). The father thinks on his feet: they need money, so why not give the people what they want?
His wife isn’t comfortable with the idea, but minds less once she realizes how lucrative it is (and that nobody, really, gets hurt in the process). Hundreds of Dollars later, an elderly woman appears at their door — she claims she is Einstein’s niece and that the house is hers. She has the deed to prove it, but at the same time, the father remembers growing up there, the house having been in his family for generations.
One thing the stories all share is a sort of lack of resolution — we get no explanation, and never find out whether or not the house was indeed Einstein’s. Another recurring theme I noticed was that of pets / parenting. While I wish some of the female characters were less pathetic / more believable, I did enjoy the stories. What about these women makes me say they’re pathetic? Well, they have this stereotypical, exaggerated yearning for motherhood, and they obsess about their ‘children.’ They are fairly flat characters in the sidelines, needed for the plot, but not someone we actually get to know.
In one story, we meet a couple who adopt a hedgehog for a pet. The wife wants a baby, the husband doesn’t, so he agrees to a pet. Oddly enough, the couple apparently wear oven mitts to handle the creature, whom they name Orion. In a way, this is symbolic of their relationship to ‘him:’ the husband is distant, uninterested, and just tolerates the new family member, while the wife is overly protective of Orion. She worries enough about the hedgehog’s emotional well-being to take him to a veterinarian psychologist. Orion becomes a catalyst for the pent-up friction between husband and wife.
There’s another story in which a box turtle (named Fred) is held hostage, so to speak, through a custody agreement, by an ex-husband. Like Orion’s ‘mother,’ Fred’s ‘mother’ is extremely concerned about him, and emotionally invested in the animal’s life almost to the point of obsession.
In another story, a rabbi’s ex appears to ask her for some favors — nothing impossible, but she feels torn between wanting to refuse and, well, a sense of guilt. What if he’s not a failure after all? What if this IS a pivotal moment in his career? Is her own emotional response selfish?
Finally, my favorite story of the lot must be “Paracosmos,” which is the last story in the book. Meet Leslie (stay-at-home mother) and Hugh (her epidemiologist husband) and Evie (their daughter, aged 10). Hugh is a character, thoroughly disillusioned, who believes in nothing but hard science. When his attitude costs Evie her best friend, Leslie promises the girl a talking bird, something she’s always wanted, but Hugh puts his foot down: no disease-carrying birds in this house. Evie takes the disappointment better than expected. Shortly thereafter, she has a new friend — a girl named Lauren, who owns a parrot. The two spend almost all of their time together, Lauren even sleeps over and has breakfast and dinner with the family. The only problem is that, well, Lauren is invisible, just like her parrot.
True to character, Hugh again puts his foot down: there will be no talking to people who aren’t real, and Evie will not mention Lauren again. There’s no such thing as invisible parrots. Just as Evie finally makes friends with a new girl (a real, visible girl) at school, Lauren’s father shows up. He is concerned because his daughter is heart-broken over losing her best friend. He’s also attractive, and before she knows it, Leslie is having an affair — with the father of her daughter’s imaginary friend. Or is she real, after all?