It's a rare thing to enjoy a short story collection without particularly liking any of its actual components. Judith Hermann's Summerhouse, Later essentially falls into this category, though my appreciation of the book was certainly limited and I'm hesitant to recommend it.
Summerhouse, Later comprises of nine short stories, each of which looks rather distantly at a set of damaged, fairly unhappy characters. Despite the distance, however, Hermann manages to bring each character close to the reader, leaving the impression that though there's a certain coldness surrounding everything, we're not entirely disconnected. The distance seems to have much more to do with the story setting than as some sort of accidental flaw on Hermann's part - a coolly calculated move by an author who is in perfect control of her writing.
And so these nine stories take our damaged characters and present them to us at that crucial pivot - the moment when things change. Or rather, the moment when things can change.
This thematic idea is evident from the first story - "The Red Coral Bracelet". The narrator, rather like all the characters in the book, is not particularly likable, nor is she very substantial; meanwhile, nothing really happens in the story. What we get is that shift, a moment in which the status changes and the story gets nudged along its tracks. This might leave a lot of readers cold - the distinct lack of characterization or plot can make these stories feel a bit incomplete or shoddy. But the calm focus on those pivots proves to be an interesting storytelling technique and though I certainly felt empty after reading them, something lingered nonetheless.
Two stories seem to shy away from this model, one successfully and the other not so much. "The End of Something" is easily the weakest, most forgettable story in the collection, mostly made up of a blurry monologue that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with nothing in between - an utterly pointless story.
But the story that immediately precedes it - "Sonja" - manages to do the exact opposite, leading to a significantly more successful story. We get a narrator who is actually sympathetic, or at least as close to sympathetic as a guy in a series of weird relationships and relative ambivalence can be. His baffling relationship with the bizarre Sonja (who is distinctly not a manic pixie dream girl) is both interesting and oddly touching (in a very weird and even somewhat unsettling way), and we also get to see the story from start to finish. I'm not sure I could call it my favorite story from the collection (indeed, I'm not sure any story qualifies for that...), but it certainly stood out in a positive light.
All in all, Summerhouse, Later is a fairly uniform, interesting read. I'd even call it pleasant, were it not for the distinctly dark and rather depressing undertones that occupy the collection from start to finish. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it nor do I think readers should go out of their way to read it, but if it comes across your radar, it is an interesting book. And I'm definitely curious to see what Hermann does with a full-novel canvas.