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If I'd Known You Were Coming (Iowa Short…
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If I'd Known You Were Coming (Iowa Short Fiction Award)

by Kate Milliken

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In the final story in this stunning collection, Drew is a young male character whose parents ran a family medical practice in rural Maine. He recalls that, in spite of having a very broad circle of friends, his parents only rarely invited anyone over for a get-together: “Only occasionally did they host their own parties, having grown weary of the occasional girl, the uninvited guest who would come back, his mother having to usher them off to her study, away from all the celebrants, her tone one of forced politeness, ‘If I’d known you were coming –.’ Drew was still a boy then, but he’d understood those girls, the look on their faces, how they wanted something already gone.”

Kate Milliken’s "If I’d Known You Were Coming" is a gallery of uninvited girls and women who have to muster tremendous forces of will to battle demons within and without. The initial entry, "A Matter of Time," establishes the chilling topos straight away. In it, Lorrie is married to a Hollywood show business wannabe, and she’s desperate to make a go of things. When a visiting celebrity producer takes an unnatural interest in her five year-old daughter, Caroline, her reaction – the opposite of that of a protective mother, from what we can tell – sets the tone.

The landscape remains bleak when we glimpse Caroline years later, on her sixteenth birthday. In "The Whole World" Caroline’s behavior confirms the abuse earlier in life. In "Everything Looks Beautiful" a woman cannot bring herself to make love to her husband, who is just recovered from a double amputation. She flirts with the gardening help instead. Through a couple of snippets, and interim stories of Caroline, the theme continues: women struggling to find the tools to cope with disintegrating lives. But then Ms. Milliken concludes with "Inheritance," which brings us back finally to Caroline. At the end, the author introduces a surprise, a faint note of hope for our splintered, near-hopeless girl.

Ms. Milliken’s heroines are real, sometimes excruciatingly so. Their stories are just as real, and the events she hints at are horrifyingly common in life. These stories bring the emotional reality of these facts home with full force. They have a bleak emotional palette, but the author has crafted them so artfully, it’s hard to see how they could be done any better.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2013/10/if-id-known-you-were-coming-by-kate.h... ( )
  LukeS | Oct 27, 2013 |
WHEW! Or maybe WOW! I just read Kate Milliken's story collection, IF I'D KNOWN YOU WERE COMING, and, well, WOW! Because these twelve California-rooted stories quite literally blew me away. Kate Milliken lets you inside the heads of some very strange women. Marginalized plain women, like Meridith in "The Rental" -

"Meredith knew she wasn't pretty. She was short and wide around the middle, her face too round and her hair - not straight or curly - a tangle of thin wire. A man had not touched her in years."

Sexually abused and victimized women, like Dolores in "Sleight of Hand," who remembers the summer she was twelve when "Charlie kept me tied down in one place, on my own bed, my mouth full with his undershirt."

Then there is Lila, who dances alone for the Latino gardeners and for her legless husband ("Everything Looks Beautiful"); and Catherine, running from the memory of her hanged husband, trying to make a new life in the empty glimmer of Los Angeles with her silent damaged son ("Parts of a Boat"); and restless, sexually ambiguous Josie, still searching for a father figure ("Blue" and "Detour").

And most of all there is Caroline, a recurring character in "A Matter of Time", "The Whole World", "Blue", "Detour" and "Inheritance." In Caroline the reader follows a life's sad arc of abandonment, neglect, sexual promiscuity and experimentation and, finally, utter despair.

I generally read short story collections in installments - read a story, put the book down for a while, then read another one later, etc. It was literally impossible to do that with Milliken's stories. They are so mesmerizing, so "different" that I simply could not wait to see what the next one offered. There is a hard-edged, clear-eyed clarity to each of these stories, most of them about dysfunctional, broken familes. The relationships explored have little to do with love or romance. There is no danger that Milliken's stories will ever be called "chick lit." No, there is something eerily odd, almost frightening, in the way she looks at how men and women interact. I mean SPOOKY! In fact, hey, if George Saunders were a woman, this is the way he would write. In fact, Kate MILLIKEN may just out-Saunders Saunders in this collection.

Probably not a lot of men today read short stories written by women. But I'm here to tell you that, after reading Kate Milliken's stuff, I will never again quite see women in the same way. Because this is just one of those electrifying HOLY CRAP kind of reading experiences I will not soon forget. Very highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Oct 15, 2013 |
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In these twelve award-winning stories, Kate Milliken unflinchingly shows us what can happen when the uninvited guest of our darkest desires comes to call. Whether surrounded by the white noise of a Hollywood celebration or enduring a stark winter in Maine, the characters of If I'd Known You Were Coming yearn to heal old wounds with new hurts. With a wry wit and a keen eye for emotive detail, the author of this unforgettable collection sets intersections in motion that will leave you both winded and wanting more. In one story, a mother, driven by greed, unwittingl.… (more)

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