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Originally published Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'Marry or Burn': moments in marriage that change lives forever

A review of Valerie Trueblood's story collection "Marry or Burn," a sharp-edged mosaic of the institution of marriage. Trueblood will discuss her book Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Valerie Trueblood

The author of "Marry or Burn" will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Actor Megan Cole will read from "Marry or Burn"; Trueblood will answer questions about the book. Free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

'Marry or Burn'

by Valerie Trueblood

Counterpoint, 294 pp., $15.95

Seattle author Valerie Trueblood's short-story collection "Marry or Burn" resolutely probes the idea and range of marriage, letting us gaze at a variety of couplings from differing angles, forming a dangerous, sharp-edged mosaic.

We meet a woman just emerged from 20 years in prison after killing her husband ("Amends"); a troubled alcoholic mother finding hope at the wedding of her daughter ("Invisible River"); a wife coping with her husband's infidelity as she watches other tenuous marriages around her ("Mance Lipscomb"); a grown daughter who uncertainly attends her father's wedding, to a woman so formidable she once attacked a bear in an attempt to save her first husband ("Beloved, You Looked Into Space").

With only a couple of exceptions (most notably the charming "Suitors," an irresistible reminder of the adage that there's someone for everyone), these stories are not tales of happily-ever-after but of reflection and memory. Trueblood, who also wrote the novel "Seven Loves," is interested in the moments that change our lives forever, and her characters are quietly haunted by them. "Phantom Father" tells of just that: a daughter fascinated by her mother's first husband, who killed himself after learning his wife had taken a lover.

"In time [the mother] would marry again," the calm narration relates, "and the three children she had with this husband would find bits and pieces of those old events in themselves, like tea leaves."

Trueblood weaves in a few sly observations about writing (of one would-be writer's first novel, we're told "read aloud it had the resistance of potatoes being mashed without any liquid") and of human nature ("Like all women, she explained a haircut."). But "Marry or Burn" leaves you primarily conscious of its characters' moments of loss, and their struggle to find meaning from them. A woman remembers her father long ago in the kitchen, "wrapped in the scent of shaving lotion, that would drift like his ghost across hotel lobbies in later years, to find me."

And Jenny, the daughter in "Beloved" (the book's last, longest and most powerful story) wonders about the man killed by the bear, and what it would be like if he could see the woman who loved him so fiercely stand and marry another. "So that love — had it not been a singular thing after all?" she ponders. "Was it, with the unthinking power it had let loose, somehow repeatable?" Love is, we learn in these stories, magically repeatable; to the great benefit of writers and readers endlessly fascinated by the subject and its mysteries.

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