Two reviews of Second Language By Ronna Wineberg
Reviews by Jaclyn Thomas and Steven Hansen, Small Spiral Notebook
Wineberg's compassion for her characters is subtle and consistent throughout Second Language. Many of the stories are preoccupied with intergenerational communication - a woman flies to Paris to find her unknown father in "The Search"; in "A Crossing", Alice, a pediatrician with breast cancer, dismisses her mother's offers of spiritual healing. World War II hovers discreetly in many of these stories, as characters share both the history and a tacit desire for silence. In "The Coin Collector," Sonia sees that Mr. Vespers, the man who arrives to buy her late husband's coins, has "small blue numbers imprinted on his right wrist." When Patrice finds her father, Franz, in "The Search," Franz denies the act of lying. " 'One didn't lie then,' " he tells her, speaking of the war. " 'Those were extraordinary times.' "
Wineberg focuses on the quotidian - the rituals and habits of romantic and filial love - so that the smallest moments unfold to reveal intense revelation and emotion. In "The Lapse", Edward watches his wife washing the dishes and begins to wonder about the future of their marriage. In "When We Went South," Laura visits the apartment her husband is moving into with his young lover. Wineberg's characters are reflective, pensive, torn between what feels right and what feels good. Each woman encounters a troubling path; an ill parent, a decaying marriage, a furious child. The value of material wealth is a central concern; in "The Coin Collector," as Sonia watches Mr. Vespers leave with her coins, she thinks, "he's stealing my memories." In the title story, when Lucy learns that her parents have been robbed, she tells them, " 'You're alive. Things are replaceable, Dad.'"
In this story, Lucy's Second Language is Spanish, but one can sense that each of these stories has an undercurrent of a new language, a way of speaking to challenges and unanticipated sorrows. There is a language of adultery, of ruined marriage, in "When We Went South"; in "The Search," Patrice finally speaks as a daughter for the first time in her life. Throughout the collection, whether they are standing before their lovers or their spouses, their parents or their doctors, the women in Second Language find that they are able to cope with the seemingly unbearable, and that their instinct and intellect will give them the words.
Revisiting the snippets I had highlighted in the collection Second Language, I was struck by their ability to elicit gut-level emotional responses all on their own; as if these soulful epigrams had become wrapped up in their respective stories only by chance.
In the story "A Crossing," a woman must deal with more than just the prospect of a cancer-caused mastectomy: What had been hardest until now-when all Alice wanted was to grow old-had been the giving up of being young.
Recovering from heart surgery, an old woman in the story "The Visitor" grapples with a true realization of death: Some days she wondered if this would ever end. No. She wondered when this hazy world would end, and then she felt a terror unlike any other.
A woman dealing with the imminent death of a parent in the story "Bad News" being comforted by a prospective new lover: "When my mother was sick, we talked about things we'd never mentioned. About how hard it is to say goodbye."
Yes, these stories are saturated with death, and other unpalatable things like dying of some terminal illness and various permutations of death: death of a spouse, death of a parent, death of self (both literal and figurative), death of love, but if one subscribes to the theory that the overriding motivating factor for how we live our lives is the knowledge of our body's inexorable demise, then death is a bloody worthy subject to fixate on, knowing that death, like love, (as demonstrated by millions of writers past, present and, no doubt, future) as a subject for literary investigation is impossible to exhaust.
If one were to judge Second Language only by the last paragraph, its alternate title could have just as well been Life's a Bitch and Then You Die. But author Ronna Wineberg is much too smart to have any of her works be characterized so flatly. As the brilliantly subtle and matter-of-fact coin dealer in the story "The Coin Collector" puts it, "...everyone needs an interest to take his mind off aspects of life." In other words, everyone knows they're going to die, but that's no reason to avoid living. And when you look for these moments of interest in Wineberg's stories -- even though the face of the unavoidable and impending void may be blotting out the sun - they are everywhere: the woman with pancreatic cancer taking pleasure in baking for her worried daughter; a stolen kiss (freely given) between acquaintances with fleeting business; an old woman's breath and rough lips grazing the skin of her daughter's forehead.
The protagonists of each story are, for the most part, female and middle aged. Wineberg gets credit for trying one or two stories with male protagonists, but these are not her strongest efforts. Other similarities are the characters are invariably Jewish, and many of them are doctors. This is not a criticism so much as it is an observation.
These are not stories for the foolish or naive, but those who've been around the block a time or nine. Those who have (been around the block) will come to identify so strongly with the reminiscences and longings of the characters on display in this collection that the repetition of subject matter and theme will not rankle, but be resonant and welcome as the repeated playing of a favorite 45.