I received a copy of Sidewalk Dancing: A Novel in Stories by Letitia Moffitt for review from Atticus Books.
About the Book:
A dime-a-dozen diner. A nameless couple. A language barrier. So begins Sidewalk Dancing.
Throughout the pages that follow, the story of Miranda McGee and her parents, George and Grace, unfolds. They are a disjointed family, none of the parts quite seeming to fit with the others. Her father is a restless dreamer lacking the practicality to see his schemes through. Her hardworking Chinese-born mother has never grasped the English language well enough to express herself without frustration. Caught between them, Miranda struggles to make sense of her place in the world.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened Sidewalk Dancing for the first time. The subtitle, “a novel in stories,” made me think of Tracks by Eric D. Goodman (another great Atticus title). And the two are similar, in that the structure enhances the story. But they’re quite different, too.
Sidewalk Dancing is comprised of a string of vaguely chronological vignettes from the lives of the McGee family. Some focus on a single character, others on several. Some are told in first person, others in third, and one — successfully, I was pleased to discover — in second.
The short story structure gives the novel a slightly disjointed flavor. That’s fitting, since Miranda herself seems to fit nowhere: not with her parents, not away from them. It’s like the novel’s format is a manifestation of Miranda’s inner state. You’re never sure how much time passes between stories. There are snapshots of Miranda’s parents before she was born, of her as a girl, of her life after she’s grown up and moved away. There are allusions to trips taken and people met in passing that appear nowhere else in the book. Throughout it all are threads of Grace’s wordless frustration, George’s well-intentioned impracticality, and Miranda’s restless rootlessness. In that sense, it’s clear Sidewalk Dancing is truly a collection of short stories. Yet they are just close enough to a cohesive story that it works.
I was rather entranced by Moffitt’s gentle writing. Reading her prose is like slipping into warm bathwater: easy, comforting, delightful, relaxing. She expresses amazing depth with only a few words. She wanders around the private landscapes of her characters just enough to bring them vividly to life but not so much that her reader gets lost. In a gesture, a sigh, a turn of phrase, she spins the fabric of their relationships. Nothing flashy. No pyrotechnics. But impressive, once you realize what’s going on.
It’s interesting…I didn’t especially like any of the characters in Sidewalk Dancing. At least, not in the sense that I’d want to sit down and have coffee with any of them. But they were complicated enough to hold my interest and make me care. They felt alive somehow, like they’re out there in the world, like I could cross paths with them at any moment. They felt…normal, I guess. Not like characters so much as people.
My favorite story was the last one. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on, which only added to my delight when I did. It reminded me a little of The Last Five Years, a two-person musical by Jason Robert Brown in which one half of a couple lives the relationship forwards while the other lives it backwards. There’s beauty in rewinding, in stepping into the past once you’ve seen the future. And nostalgia, and poignancy. And hope, maybe, that things will work out after all. I was left with all of those feelings as I closed the slender volume that is Sidewalk Dancing.
I really do love Atticus Books. They find the neatest authors. In fact, their title The Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer is one of my favorite books. If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, check out their collection. I’m always curious to see what they’ve lined up next.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
Actually, when I finished the book, I’d have placed it at Enjoyable. It’s one of those books that gets better with a little distance, though, settling into your mind and echoing there after you’ve moved on. As I wrap up this review, I’d say it’s slowly edging its way up toward Excellent. For lack of half stars, though, I’ll stay with the initial reaction.