Press & Praise

New York Times Book Review

Near the end of the title story in “My Escapee,” Corinna Vallianatos’s taut and delicate collection, the resident cat at a rest home, the pet meant to comfort and slow “the hammering of an unhealthy heart,” dies in the lobby. White heads gather around Algebra’s corpse to sigh and accuse. One woman collapses and is denounced as a fake. “Don’t pretend you loved that cat,” Ginny, the main character, says. To which the woman’s husband replies: “She loved the thought of her. She truly did.”

It’s a wonderful moment in a collection full of swift insights about expectation and disappointment. In all 10 stories, characters are drawn to the thoughts of things — the opportunity to attend a selective school; the secret rite of an all-male club; sex, marriage, motherhood and friendship — but reality often eludes their ideas and yearnings, leaving them confused, regretful and wanting more.

Ginny, newly established at the rest home, certainly wants more. She wants martinis and salted nuts. She pines for Margaret, her lover of 63 years. Puzzling packages, remnants of their life together, arrive with regularity, and Ginny struggles to understand what message lies in a scrap of blue fabric or a vacation brochure for a Galápagos cruise. When she learns the true origin of the packages — that they are an act of misguided generosity, and that Margaret died in her sleep weeks ago — Ginny withdraws. The packages, like Algebra the cat, were meant to soothe, yet they missed their mark.

In “Examination,” Anna takes a test to determine if she can switch to a school for gifted kids. That Anna is not certain she wants to go, that she consistently stumps her teachers and is bored by her examiner, is not surprising. What makes this story sing is that her parents have attended a funeral on this day, and that they have kept it a secret. When Anna learns of this protective gesture, she feels shame. At school she is a master of vocabulary and logic. Within her home she encounters mystery. “Anna passes her parents’ bedroom and sees through the cracked door her mother standing in her underwear in front of a full-length mirror. Her mother raises her arms over her head and releases a blue bundle that tumbles down her body and becomes a dress. . . . She purses her lips to apply lipstick. It seems her mother’s not really looking at herself, but at the pieces of herself she’s assembling. The light in the room is slow, museum-like.” Quotidian life intrigues Anna — the sound of silverware, her father’s knotted tie, a condolence letter. Anna’s genius lies in her ability to look hard, to examine with fresh eyes and to recognize her love of the ordinary.

Vallianatos, winner of the 2011 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, also looks hard. Her descriptions are fresh, smart and funny; “the feather-tip of laughter,” “a voice like scummy honey,” “Olives glistened like the heads of seals.” Only once in a while does she slip too far toward quirky, with jarring results: “The carpet caught the ice cubes and held them on its fiber-ends.” She can reveal an entire life in a series of vignettes, open wide a heart with a single sentence. A bride and groom drive off toward their honeymoon: “The car was a dart, equal parts hope and aim.” In the vivid lives of Vallianatos’s characters, as in our own, hope and aim are often misaligned.

– Natalie Serber, author of “Shout Her Lovely Name.” New York Times Sunday Book Review
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The Boston Globe

One of the characters in this bracing new collection, a gifted schoolgirl, bolts for home in the midst of an IQ test; another, facing her own likely early death, swaps roles with her nurse, an ambiguous letting go. All of the women (and some men) in Corinna Vallianatos’s stories seem to find themselves betwixt and between — in a “place of torn loyalties, confusion of being,” one notes — but the resulting fiction is clear, vivid, and affecting.

Vallianatos’s debut is rich with precisely rendered moments of painful recognition, resignation, or passionate defiance. Many of the characters are unhappy, or angry, or scared; you get the sense that they have arrived at a point of nothing-to-lose truth-telling. In the title story (the book’s best), an old woman rails against life in a nursing home, comforting herself with memories of her longtime lover: “I always thought she was beautiful. The process of her aging was better known to me than it would have been to a husband, and I was sympathetic to it.”

– Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

Publishers Weekly

“Selected by Jhumpa Lahiri for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, Vallianatos’s debut collection features female protagonists who are smart, flawed, and alienated but striving for connection.

In the title story, Genevieve, an elderly lesbian living in a nursing home and dealing with the confusion of age and memory, longs for her lover, who seems to be traveling around the world. “It’s dizzying, the way the past unfolds in crystal bits, and the present’s this faulty plateau,” Genevieve says. While the story relies on an overused plot device, moments of insight make it successful.

“Sink Home” focuses on middle-aged women in the midst of affairs; in “Salvo” a young woman marries on a whim; a group of college girls attend a fraternity’s ball in “Celebrants”; and a young girl, in “Examination,” bails on a gifted-child test. The knock-out story “Posthumous Fragments of Veronica Penn” is representative of the collection’s strengths. The story, assembled as a montage of memory, leaps in time and logic. It’s disorienting at first, but slowly a collage of Veronica is formed. She realizes, slowly, how hard it is to comprehend herself and her own actions, let alone understand the depths of anyone else. It’s mesmerizing to see it unfurl. Vallianatos writes with insight, humor, and elegance.”

– Publishers Weekly

Booklist

“In Vallianatos’ nuanced collection, winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, female protagonists struggle with untidy emotions and difficult realities: aging, self-doubt, and relationships past and present. “Sink Home” follows the married Mira as she meets Hugh, an ACLU lawyer who is a stark contrast to her dry, internist husband. While Mira initially resists Hugh’s advances, it isn’t long before she begins to rationalize their muddled affair. In “Salvo,” Leah and Ian are preparing for their wedding after a whirlwind courtship shaped by their responses to the unsettling death of their artist friend. The title story portrays nursing home patient Genevieve as she begins receiving packages from an old lover containing fragments of their shared past. The mysterious deliveries drive Genevieve to confront her mortality as well as troubling memories of her former relationship. In “Examination,” the path of a young student in the midst of taking a test for admittance to a school for the gifted takes a surprising turn. Vallianatos’ 10 tales skillfully explore the emotional dimensions of the gap between identity and self-awareness.”

– Leah Strauss, Booklist

Concord Monitor

Jhumpa Lahiri selected this short fiction collection by Vermont author Corinna Vallianatos for the Grace Paley Prize. The characters in these stories, mostly women, are almost all acting counter to the world’s expectations of them.

Vallianatos explores their inner lives, exposing their choices and desires, the hard edges and soft comforts of their lives.

Age and illness, infirmity and death, love and betrayal, motherhood and youthful indecision – Vallianatos sculpts this ordinary stuff of life into stories that make common human frailties beautiful.

– Concord Monitor


Advance Praise

"With the spare, definitive strokes of Matisse's late portraits, the stories in My Escapee hew precisely to the truth, while rendering a series of expressive and particular female lives. The characters are disoriented, vulnerable, at times dependent on others; they are also determined, defiant, passionate. One admires their self-awareness, one forgives them their imperfections, one feels keenly their isolation. The language is lucid, forceful, in turns unassuming and startling. Read together, these stories navigate an intimate landscape of fault lines, of grottoes of emotions, of stark passages and significant crossings. Vivid, whimsical, and restrained, they introduce a mature voice, an affecting and bracing debut."

-Jhumpa Lahiri, Grace Paley Prize contest judge and author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake

"These stories are wonderful---stirringly imagined, daringly structured, and wise to the ways of the human heart. Corinna Vallianatos can make an entire soul come shining out of the smallest phrase, and she does so again and again, sentence after sentence, on every page of this collection."

-Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination

"Corinna Valliantatos is a gangbuster talent. She suffuses scenes with the kind of radiant empathy one longs for in a story, and makes such sharp observations that she often startles the reader into laughter. Every sentence in My Escapee is taut and elastic and every story in this wonderful collection sings with both sadness and glee."

-Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia

"My Escapee is a splendid collection of stories told with admirable compression and variety and humor and quirkiness. The characters are flawed yet appealing, the writer's sensibility a joy to discover. Like a newfound friend, this writer's voice made me feel less alone in the world."

-Antonya Nelson, author of Bound: A Novel and Nothing Right: Short Stories