Irish-born Mary Curtin and American Lyle Sullivan met on Lyle’s home soil when Mary was working as an au pair, and they spent most of their marital decades in Ohio. Surprising both themselves and their two grown sons, when retirement looms, the couple decides to move to Galway. Mary, long homesick for the small dailiness of Irish life, finds the move as invigorating as the sea air in her new hometown, while Lyle adjusts more slowly and clumsily.
The real clumsiness, however, is between them. Lyle, it seems, has been a too-reserved and angry husband, given to odd mannerisms that suggest obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mary, meanwhile, fell into the rut of so many 1960s American housewives of not having a life of her own. When she's back on familiar ground, she begins to wonder if the sacrifices she made for Lyle were worth it. Both husband and wife find themselves drawn to other people, and if those encounters do not result in classic affairs, the consequences for the marriage are no less classic: in the Sullivans' case, extramarital attraction makes their hearts grow fonder --- for each other.
The stories that form this novel are remarkable for many reasons, but I was chiefly struck by their stylistic differences. Lordan is known for her mastery of the short story, and here she riffs on that form. "Digging," for example, is all about Mary and Lyle's family backgrounds, but is given the form of a folk tale. "Cemetery Sunday," the first story, uses a familiar trope of short fiction --- take a cultural oddity/tradition and make it a metaphor --- yet here it's remarkably fresh, as if Lordan had invented the steps herself.
However, just as they begin to dance to the same rhythm, Mary and Lyle are thrown by her falling ill. The conceit of this being "a novel in stories" allows Lordan to offer windows that open and shut onto their relationship. However, when the last "story" arrives, it is over twice the length of any of the others, and seems as if it might have been the basis for a more traditional novel she was trying to write.
This is not a criticism --- the earlier stories in BUT COME YE BACK have their own kind of beauty, including the stunning "The Man With the Lapdog," which won the 2000 O. Henry Award. However, they don't have the same naked honesty that shines through in "But Come Ye Back," the final "chapter" of the book. Here, we discover the power of Lyle's love for Mary and are shown a remarkable faith for long-term relationships, not just marriage but also relationships between other family members --- father and children, sister- and brother-in-law, the newly affianced.
In this story/novella/whatever it is, Lyle's grief is stark in its unraveling, his sons' interactions all too true in their small kindnesses and idiosyncrasies. While the first six stories had me nodding my head and stopping to think, "But Come Ye Back" had me forgetting to breathe.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 21, 2011
But Come Ye Back: A Novel in Stories