People make decisions at points in their lives that require that they leave old friends and ways behind in order to make a new start. That is one of the prerogatives of human existence. It can also bring about life's most painful dealings. In THE LANGUAGE OF GOOD-BYE, Maribeth Fischer explores the ways in which words help us through painful times and absolve past difficulties as well as break through barriers and help new beginnings to find foot.
Annie and Will have come together to start a new life as a couple, but in doing so, Annie must let go of her best friend, the man she married long ago, and Will must endure a separation from his five-year-old daughter, the real love of his life. What compels them to be together when the stakes of what they lose are so high? What can they do to make a clean break and have a chance at being happy together? Fischer examines their affairs against the backdrop of a young immigrant woman named Sungae, who has left Korea to come to the United States, ending up as one of Annie's English students. For Sungae, what she has left behind is also considerable --- and, in order to make a new start, she must have Annie's help and the stalwart companionship of a new language to put her old life into the proper perspective.
Fischer, who has been bestowed with some of the most notable of short fiction prizes, seems very comfortable with the length of the novel format. However, THE LANGUAGE OF GOOD-BYE is like watching a good Hollywood film starring capable actors --- it reaches for the easy emotional buttons and pushes, but somehow doesn't stick with you. The story of Sungae is the most engaging of the two plots, and I found that I really wanted Annie and Will to take a back seat to this more interesting character. Annie and Will could have been plucked from the subplots of a "Once and Again" script, while Sungae has been etched from the true depths of literary examination of the heart.
THE LANGUAGE OF GOOD-BYE is a skewed portrait of new lives. If only Annie and Will (as well as Carter, Annie's ex) did not say everything they felt so clearly, as if they had all been in therapy for a really long time and knew exactly how to express themselves, perhaps we would have more empathy for them. Instead, they sound like whiners, which is fine part of the time but wears thin after many pages.
It's not perfect, but THE LANGUAGE OF GOOD-BYE shows that Fischer may, in subsequent novels, be able to tell which of her stories demands the front row attention and give it just that. Although the personal breakups here are expressed with the proper messiness, Fischer never quite makes the struggles for new romance and opportunity as convincing or interesting as the struggle for a new language to express the hopes and pains of a past life.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011
The Language of Good-Bye