Book review: The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg

Kernels of insight nestled inside van den Berg's individual tales rescue her collection from homogeny



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Photograph: Alvina Lai

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

By Laura van den Berg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.

As with her debut, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, Laura van den Berg fuels the vignettes in her new collection with a mix of odd premises and everyday moments. Despite their satisfying variety of conceits, however, the stories suffer from a sense of similarity, brought on by their passive first-person narrators.

In the title story, a woman begrudgingly agrees to assume her daring twin’s identity, while taking a break from her own aloof husband. But even in its most dangerous moments, this story’s narrator—and the protagonists of many of the other tales—maintains a safe distance from the action going on around her. Even in stories as dissimilar as a soon-to-be divorcée tromping through Paris with acrobats or a new bride surviving an emergency landing en route to her honeymoon, there’s a kind of sameness—in each there are thoughtless men who feed into the central character’s ambivalence.

But the collection succeeds somewhat, due to its emotional authenticity. In the opener, the narrator stops to remind herself to be patient in her life as a newlywed. “We’re new at this,” she tells herself. The small, genuine and insightful moments at the heart of each tale mark the progress of a distinguished young writer.

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