Our Love Could Light the World, Anne Leigh Parrish’s short story collection, reads in many ways like a novel, so much so that I want to call it a shorvel (short novel) or nort (novel of short stories).
Each Love story features members of the Dugan family and takes us a point further on their timeline. The Dugans come at the reader without apology and without how-to manuals. They stumble just fine over low obstacles.
The eponymous “Our Love Could Light the World” begins the collection. It’s the tail end of a monotonous summer. The Dugans are stuck in a low-grade bicker bubble. Full-of-gumption Mom (Lavinia) is off with her boss at a manufactured homes sales conference. Ambitionless, out-of-work Dad (Potter) is drinking and watching game shows. Overweight, crabby fourteen-year-old Angie obsessively texts a boy in her class with whom she’s infatuated. Then a younger sibling alerts her that there’s no mayonnaise (needed for lunch) and no laundry soap (needed for clean clothes for school start). Something must be done. Angie pulls herself away from her text affair to scrounge up quarters and grimy greenbacks, then shoos her four younger siblings off to the store.
The Dugan kids fail on mission mayo and laundry soap. They bring home something better: an old man with failing memory. Angie chastises them for their ineptitude, then sets out making the grizzled guy feel at home. Soon she is spoon-feeding him Campbell’s and the younger kids are lobbying Dad to keep him. Adopt-an-octogenarian derails with the arrival of a nursing home employee, but granddad sticks around long enough to give Angie her first taste of love. Perhaps mistaking her for his departed wife, he takes Angie’s hand in his, kisses her, peers at her through his milky eyes and proclaims that their love could light the world.
The subsequent Love stories follow the breakup of the Dugans’ marriage; Lavinia’s marriage to the manufactured home guy, Chip; the Dugan kids’ bailing on Dad in favor of Chip and Lavinia’s tonier digs; Potter’s years of listlessness and wandering; and the kids’ growing up.
Wealthy Chip is Potter’s opposite in many ways. He is a doer, likes money, and doesn’t mope. He’s good at acquiring—houses, cars, country club memberships, wives. But Chip is soulless. The Dugan kids never warm to him; they just like his money. Ditto his three sons. They have all moved to distant states and rarely visit or phone. Even Lavinia cools to Chip after she gets accustomed to upscale living. Their once zesty sex life goes flat.
By the final story, the Dugan kids are in their late teens and twenties. Angie has found a way to channel the anger that overwhelmed her as a fourteen-year-old. She has found a way to balance her twin impulses of caring for others and caring too much. She has found fulfillment as a social worker.
After years of being adrift, Potter has found steady employment at a big box home improvement center, cut back on his drinking, and found a new love. Ambitious Lavinia has realized, too late, that things don’t mean that much to her. She wasn’t a Chip person after all. She was more of a Potter person.