We all have crisis points in our lives --- moments of time where we
are never the same, where a simple word from a friend or an enemy
can stay with us forever, where a whispered admission of guilt or a
secret made public can alter the course of a relationship
indefinitely. Olaf Olafsson's book of short stories catches 12 of
these relationships right at their own individual points of crisis.
Men and women alike will be carried along by these tales, as the
universality of human nature takes the place of rigid stereotypes
or gender-based points of view.
Each story in VALENTINES takes place during a different month of
the year. In January a bachelor tries to reconnect with an old
girlfriend. In March a barren wife discovers that her husband can't
let go of his desire for children. In July a husband's sudden
illness keeps him from leaving his wife and from rekindling his
occupational passion. Each story presents both sides of the
argument at hand, as Olafsson exposes the complexity of true
understanding and commitment's fragile threads. Here there are no
right or wrong answers, no "morals to the story." There is only the
reality that nothing stands still.
Some of the stories presented in VALENTINES are set in Iceland,
while others take place at various locations within the United
States. Many of the stories are a combination of the two, with one
or more of the main characters migrating from one location to the
other. Olafsson himself is a migratory Icelander, having lived in
the United States for a number of years, but owning a house in
Reykjavik in order to visit his homeland often.
Olafsson acknowledges in these stories the difficulty of
maintaining one's cultural heritage while forming roots in another
country. In September an Icelandic mother counsels her emigrating
daughter not to marry an American, and in June a father tests his
American son-in-law to the limit during the new groom's first visit
to Iceland. In May a husband settles down with an American woman,
happily trading his past country for his present and future
happiness, only to have his wife leave him for another woman.
VALENTINES takes off with a bang, and each page leads to the other
effortlessly. Olafsson is a master of dialogue and thus makes the
most difficult aspect of story-writing seem easy and natural. His
characters come alive the most at this time, as short, clipped
sentences speak volumes in revealing the character of the speaker.
When such dialogue is infrequent, as sometimes happens here, the
story sounds less like a beautifully flawless tale and more like a
psychological evaluation. Therefore, the real gems in this book are
those that are heavy on communication and light on narration.
Fortunately for the reader, Olafsson provides many such gems, and
the perfection of one more than makes up for the small letdown of
While each page leads fluidly to the next, the reader will most
likely need a bit of a break in between each story. The subject
matter is so heavy that it's not easy to jump from one point of
crisis to the next without being able to absorb each one
separately. But after each absorption, the reader will be drawn
back to VALENTINES, ready to voyeuristically enter the next
intimate relationship and anxious to see how the next couple will
deal with life's complexities.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel (www.shannonluders.com) on January 24, 2011