Sympathetic People
by Donna Baier Stein



Serving House Books. LLC, 2013. ISBN 978-0-985-84958-0.
Reviewed by Diane Stanton
Posted on 09/29/2014

Fiction: Mainstream

To read Sympathetic People is to immerse oneself in the figurative language, authentic characters, and realistic tales of author Donna Baier Stein. Stein relies on first person narration throughout the collection, giving voice to women dealing with life experiences of marriage, motherhood, divorce, and death. The action is retrospective, reflective, and reminiscent of Anne Beattie's work.

In "Versions," the first work in this collection of fourteen short stories, Stein introduces us to her characters, noting, "We are all sympathetic people. Individually, or two-by-two." and "None of us have ever refused a midnight call... We are rich." She describes a senior citizen waiting for a bus as "pearled haired" and her husband as a "Hirsute Doll." This story exposes us to the insecurities of a woman, a nameless character, who is meeting her husband's first wife. The story ends with the character's pondering the "yellow lights in eternal indecision." Such fresh, vivid language captivates the reader from the very beginning.

In "The Secret of Snakes" Stein treats us to a character's precarious adventure of an extramarital affair and mothering and care for her son's pet snake. She establishes the context of 1980's culture with her references to "Larry Bird and Red Hot Chile Peppers posters. and .Ninja Turtle action figures." Toward the end of the story, consideration is given to the "impatience of the flesh and strong lure of the things of the world" as well as mortification of one.s own actions.

Through "The Jewel Box" we meet Sarah and her dying grandmother, Nini. Sarah relates her visit to Nini in a nursing home, describing a wheelchair-bound woman's "bird-like bones" and the "head nodded like the head of a dandelion gone to seed." This is an emotional tale of saying good-bye and connecting on a spiritual dream level, "rocking and remembering."

"Hindsight" offers a retrospective view of 1970 Lawrence, Kansas, and the lives of two young married couples. The narrator details her friend's abandonment of her marriage and the disintegration of her own. She reflects upon the loss of an idealistic past when she .had counted on friendship, Kennedy, and the collective ardent hunger of the times to keep us together. and morns the fact that, ..one day my eyes opened, and nothing, not any of it, remained."

These characters are sympathetic without being pitiful. There's not the happily ever-after promised; rather, there's an edginess that is heightened by the bit of endnote considerations, such as the yellow lights of indecision and the "collective hunger of the times." Her stories strike a chord of realism and balance and readers of certain age (like me) can identify with many of the circumstances of her work and nod in agreement at the narrator's reflective concluding comments. This is a most satisfying read.


Donna Baier Stein's poetry and prose have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her story collection, Great Drawing Board of the Sky, was a Finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards; her novel Fortune received the PEN/New England Discovery Award. Donna was a founding editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and currently is the Editor and Publisher of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. She lives in New Jersey. Visit her website.

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