The stories of Meghan Kenny’s debut collection Love Is No Small Thing follow a diverse range of narrators driven by a shared longing for intimacy. Characters struggle to navigate through the ever-complicated terrain of romantic and familial relationships. In “All These Lovely Boys,” a father attempts to overcome a dogged sense of personal alienation as he strives to understand his cross-dressing son, who performs in drag with a skydiving troupe. As he watches his boy fall from the sky in an aerial ballet, the father admits that “I was tight and unsettled. I tried to be an honest man…When it comes to your children, it doesn’t always matter what you like and don’t like.” Imperfect resolutions, a sense of stasis and unrest, permeate the lives of these individuals in the wake of difficult choices and complex realities.
Often set in rural and western American enclaves, these stories, especially those narrated by female perspectives, reminded me of Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, in their ache for love and fulfillment, even from partners who turn out to be all wrong. Many of the women from Love Is No Small Thing wrestle with forging romantic commitments, along with feeling comfortable in their own skin. In “Return is to Here,” Dorie relocates to Idaho from Connecticut in hopes of finding “something wide open and new” and becomes involved with Roger, a tough, free-spirited man who drives a pickup and takes her out shooting. Despite their growing affection and trust in one another, the deep-rooted issue of class soon pushes them apart. When Dorie invites Roger to accompany her to an affluent friend’s wedding back home, his discomfort upon arrival is immediate. “I hate suits…I feel constricted,” he says. He is soon scrutinized by Dorie’s ex-boyfriend, Stevens, who wants to know what his job is and what kind of car he drives. Likewise, Dorie is questioned by a close friend as to when she will eventually return home East. After Roger privately jokes with Dorie that Stevens might be interested in him, she whispers, “a lot of people want something they can’t have,” to which Roger replies, “yeah, all this…lack out here—people must be desperate.”
Throughout the collection, class differences serve as an underpinning to the tensions that set many of the characters apart. In “Man is the Measure of All Things,” Russell, who renovates homes professionally, is invited to the dinner party of one of his wealthy clients, John Vandermies. Though Russell looks forward to the opportunity, he also questions the condescending behavior of the affluent guests, some of whom he considers prospective clients. Russell also finds himself unsettled by an earlier interaction with two gun-toting truckers he met on the side of the road, who try to get his assistance with a mysterious plea: “we’ve lost one, and you’ve got to help.” Yet the truckers repulse and frighten Russell, and he refuses. Later, he reveals further complexity surrounding his aversion: “he knew these types of men; they were the type in his family: drinking, reckless, angry, fighting. Men he’d left behind long ago. The kind of man he chose not to be. But they were inside him, not far beneath the surface; it was in his DNA.”
Later, when those same truckers crash Vandermies’s party, Russell fears for his life, and considers a fast escape, only to discover the disturbing reality behind their earlier remarks. The truckers reveal two young boys gagged and tied, accused of stealing from Vandermies’s land. Russell recognizes one of the boys as his wife’s student, but despite his plea to let the boys go, he is ignored. Russell remains conflicted, unable to choose between standing up for the boys and alienating prospective clients, or falling in with the crowd.
The dynamics of class are examined from various perspectives, revealing the ways in which privilege doesn’t always promise contentment. In “Heartbreak Hotel,” a father takes a road trip with his adult daughter through mid-America, destined for a museum show she is curating in Boise. The father quietly mourns the lives he never led in favor of a more practical existence, while his daughter, who has spent her youth travelling internationally and pursuing her dreams, grieves the lack of a romantic partner. Together, they journey “where the land drops into the Snake River canyon, where the surface of the earth breaks into crevices and cracks left behind from the elements wearing her down, reshaping her, making her shift and change, shift and change.” Like the landscape surrounding them, these characters transcend the rough and broken places in the roads they follow, emerging transformed. The stories in Love Is No Small Thing offer a penetrating, nuanced look into the lives of individuals who long to feel at home in the world through others, but especially from within themselves.