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Book Review: One Person Away from You: Stories by Andrew Bertaina

April 5, 2022

Reviewed by Julia Tagliere

For readers who are already prone to fits of melancholy, Andrew Bertaina’s collection One Person Away from You: Stories, winner of the 2020 Moon City Short Fiction Award, could benefit from providing a content warning, as this 184-page book is a master exercise in provoking just such fits.

This is a good thing. We read to feel, to experience the full range of human emotions. But all too often in our highly-curated, social media-driven culture, that emotional range has begun to feel stunted, as if our complicated, messy selves have somehow been reduced to an endless series of happy smiles, beautiful scenery, and proud parenting moments. What’s happened to our loneliness and our yearning, to nostalgia and regret? I’ll tell you what happened: they found a home in Bertaina’s collection.

Take the opening lines of the first piece, “Everyone in this Story,” which could well serve as a content warning for the entire collection: “This isn’t one of those stories where someone has cancer. In this story, everyone has cancer.” It’s not that everyone is sick or dying, but rather that Bertaina has given his readers notice: you are about to feel some things.

Everyone in this story is calling a loved one, or thinking about calling a loved one, and regretting the time they said they didn’t love their mother, their father, the Mets, the Thanksgiving turkey, a family trip to Arizona.

In a story that takes up fewer than two pages, Bertaina uses the word “everyone” roughly a dozen times, each repetition acting like a tenderizer on our too-comfortable minds, pounding in the reminder that our emotional experiences are universal. These are things we all feel.

The next piece, on the other hand, “Something Miraculous,” while a quiet study in some very melancholy moments, is also punctuated with absurd moments of Steven Wright-esque humor:

I’d been praying for something miraculous to happen, and yesterday seemed like it might be the day until my cat threw up on the floor…I poured a bowl of cereal even though I didn’t have clean spoons. The prize came out first, rattling around in the bottom of the bowl. It was a new spoon.

The longed-for miraculous somethings in this piece seem, at least at first, such simple things: a floor that stays swept a little longer; “a family, a husband, a green lawn, so many damn things I didn’t have.” But when Bertaina’s narrator dreams of being truly seen and understood by another human, of being “an integral part of a beautiful world”, of breathing “just fine…safe in the womb of the world”, of being a dreamer, it is here that Bertaina reminds the reader that these deceptively simple things can also be utterly unattainable—and that is precisely what makes them miracles. How can one not feel a little melancholy, faced with the reality of so many unattained miracles?

As wistful, poignant and full of longing as the overall collection is, Bertaina still does a fine job of leavening all that yearning with subtle, unexpected flashes of humor, moments that sometimes make the reader laugh out loud in the middle of a situation not intended to be funny, like Hozier’s proverbial “giggle at a funeral.”

Bertaina’s story “Courtesy of Cosmopolitan: 24 Big Bang Sex Tips” is a prime example. Structured as one of Cosmo’s tip columns, the piece features funny yet sad glimpses into what the unknown narrator’s life experiences must have been like to be able to generate these unusual—and increasingly absurdist—sorts of tips:

  1. Buy a blow-up doll off the internet. When he’s out, pose with the doll in scenes reminiscent of a Rockwell painting. Post these pictures to Instagram. The doll should be middle-aged and mustachioed, and he’s going to look best in themed outfits: baseball player, ship captain, dancer, etc. Above all, always keep the doll hidden when your partner is around. Finally, after weeks, take the doll with the two of you on a picnic, reenacting a pointillist painting with pink umbrellas, water light, and the vague turquoise river running past you. If your partner is jealous, point out that he’s jealous of an inanimate object. When he goes to sleep, pack your bags and fly to Vegas with the doll and take pictures of your wedding, after which you may have tepid sex.

In Bertaina’s collection ghosts come and go, seas and villages appear and disappear, forgiveness is granted and withheld, memories ebb and flow, opportunities are missed, and loved ones fly away. The thirty-four stories featured here—many of which first appeared in such publications as December Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel and The Threepenny Review—are unique, standalone pieces; but when taken together, they form a deep reservoir of yearning, of standing this close to your heart’s desire and then watching it step away. This is a collection that gives gentle, wholehearted permission to feel—not happy, not jolly, not excited, but sad, wistful, mournful, nostalgic, or blue; and in a world where it seems we are constantly being pressured to feel “okay,” this work is a reminder that we sometimes feel not okay, and that’s okay. It’s not only a welcome break from a growing culture of what sometimes feels like toxic positivity; it’s also an undeniable and necessary part of our complex humanity. So grab a cup of tea and a soft blanket, and park yourself by a window with a copy of One Person Away From You: Stories, preferably on a rainy day, and just let yourself feel.

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Photo by Irene Abdou Photography

Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor and the recipient of a 2022 Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The WriterPotomac Review, Gargoyle MagazineWashington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong QuarterlyWritersResistBirdcoat Quarterly, various anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection, Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story, the 2017 Writer’s Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, and the 2021 Nancy Zafris Short Story Fellowship, Julia completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. In 2019, she founded the community literary reading series MoCo Underground, to showcase the work of local writers. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel. Contact her at julia@justscribbling.com.

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