I Have the Answer

By Kelly Fordon

April 7 2020, Wayne State University Press

Review by Ellen Birkett Morris

Kelly Fordon’s latest collection of short stories I Have the Answer deals with the unexpected losses that life hands out; deaths of spouses and children, unwanted advances, family secrets, hidden heroism and love that takes surprising forms, with insight and humor.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, said of the stories: “Again and again, Kelly Fordon’s characters charm and disarm us as they face death, divorce, the departure of a maddening child, a diagnosis of dementia, and even molestation. As the world crumbles, they must ask themselves the question, How do I live now? In these big-hearted stories, the answer is to be found in life itself, in living as an act of courage, and living as an art form.”

Fordon’s characters are usually smart suburban women who find themselves in positions they never imagined and seek unique ways to gain perspective. In “The Shorebirds and the Shaman” Corinne, who is dealing with the unexpected loss of her husband Ethan, goes on a weekend getaway populated by therapists. She is pressured into doing Constellation Work, role-playing family relationships. Initially skeptical, Corinne finds herself energized and discovers that she is able to imaginatively transform the experience into something liberating.

In “The Devil’s Proof” Fordon deftly examines the clash between religious doctrine and peer pressure that puts young girls in a no-win situation when it comes to sex and sexuality. A girl on the cusp of discovering her sexuality and both fascinated and repelled by the movie The Exorcist visits a dorm room in a building featured in the filming.  Torn between the catch-22 of what she has been taught by the church and her own natural curiosity, she comes face to face with her own hell. The story culminates in a wrenching scene in a church confessional.

While largely serious, the stories are peppered with humor, especially as relates to the parenting of teenagers. In “Superman at Hogback Ridge” a father and son confront a skinhead with road rage. The father muses:

My son might be recalcitrant, but at least he’s not a skinhead, I thought.

If parents don’t occasionally pad the pros and ignore the cons, this job can seem pretty thankless.

Fordon employs magical realism in several stories including “Get a Grip!,” where a woman, plagued by agoraphobia after her husband leaves her, finds a way to exorcise her demons.

“The Phantom Arm” explores the emotional transformation of a boy who has an extra arm that only he can see. The story offers unexpected wisdom. Rather than being something else to carry, the arms frees him up to behave in ways he never imagined.

In a collection that deals with the lives and concerns of suburban families, the story “How It Passed” offers an expansive look at sixteen years in the lives of a group of suburban couples. From the demands of parenthood to struggles with alcoholism, the group is left pondering if this is all there is to life. Fordon tackles all of this with humor and a sharp eye for the lived experience of her characters.

She grapples with big questions. How well do we know ourselves? How well do we know the people we are close to? Taken together, the stories offer a fresh look at the lives of suburbanites as they deal with the challenges of life and seek transcendent moments of connection and self-knowledge.