How Far I’ve Come is a short story collection, though that label seems inadequate to describe Magowan’s quirky, sad, funny, biting, insightful, and compellingly “true” stories. The book’s playful cover and design didn’t prepare me for its impressive range. Reading the collection was like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, one where all the dishes are appealing, but in vastly different ways, each touching and triggering different emotional and sensory responses.
Magowan takes risks in the ways she chooses to present her characters and their stories. She plays with form and point of view, bringing us characters of various ages and genders, in different places on the maturity ladder: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and parenthood. We meet characters with entirely different vantage points and worldviews on such issues as divorce, relationships, teenage rebellion, and more. “Middle Ages”—brief, yet stunningly complete—is one example that struck a deep chord. A stepmother, after a seemingly antagonistic interchange with her stepdaughter, confides in the reader: “There are times when I want to leave Ross, who can be a selfish prick and who is, as my mother used to say, ‘set in his ways.’ But my stepdaughter, wiry and sharp-edged as a twisty tie, is my favorite person in the world.”
As a stepmother, I reveled in this clever double twist on the wicked stepmother trope. The moment captured perfectly how complex such relationships often are—a confusing muddle of love, resentment, obligation, and best intentions. As a writer, the description of the stepdaughter, “wiry and sharp-edged as a twisty tie,” took my breath away. I knew that girl instantly, and I understood the stepmother’s response on a gut level.
Devouring the several dozen stories in How Far I’ve Come, I experienced two simultaneous reactions. On the one hand, I became so enmeshed in each new set of characters and their lives, that I was disappointed when they didn’t reappear. Yet, as I turned the page and left one compact world behind, I was excited to find that the next story, and the next, were equally compelling, and perhaps more importantly, surprising. Surprising in the sense that each successive story stretched my appreciation for Magowan’s skill, inventiveness, and breadth, as both storyteller and writer. Unlike other collections, where I might be satisfied to read one or two stories, then set the book aside for another time, here I was curious, excited to unwrap a new set of characters, a new view through the kaleidoscope lens, and, in many instances, to discover the author’s use of a new form or container for her storytelling.
In “Home Economics,” one of the longer stories in the collection, a mother is mortified to realize that her teenage daughter has morphed from wunderkind to alien; the girl steals, lies, and does other unspeakable things, all with utter equanimity. Mom teaches high school honors English at a private school and had anticipated her daughter enrolling there and dazzling the faculty, and her peers, with her brilliance. This is a child who once impressed these same friends and colleagues with her vocabulary, using words like “accolade” at a Christmas party. Now that her daughter is a student there, she is a painful embarrassment, the subject of whispered teacher’s break-room gossip. The school’s guidance counselor loans the mother a book about adolescent girls. The mother reflects: “The other thing I learned from Birch’s book that made me cry-laugh: the author tells a story about needing to check respondents’ ages when evaluating Rorschach blots. Perfectly normal teenagers receive identical scores as psychotic adults.”
In “Home Economics,” adolescent behavior is viewed through the lens of a horrified mother. In “Three Sprigs,” the perspective tables are turned—it’s the adults who are behaving badly. In this latter story, a young woman recalls the moment during a backyard barbeque when, at thirteen, she realized her father was having an affair. As her clueless mother clipped mint for drinks, the father mixed a cocktail for Margaret, a neighbor in turquoise shorts:
She accepted it in such a deliberate way—her hand receptively cupped, her fingers forked into a V, smiling at my father, staring directly into his eyes.She accepted it in such a deliberate way—her hand receptively cupped, her fingers forked into a V, smiling at my father, staring directly into his eyes. In that moment, I recognized without knowing it the future, both immediate and distant: the storms between my parents, my mother’s shock (“But she isn’t even pretty”); the divorce, the withdrawal from me, too, of my father’s attention and affection; the puckered, creamy purse embossed with sprigs of mint that Margaret would give me years later for a Christmas present; the honeyed way she said, ‘This made me think of you.’
Filled with as many unexpected turns as the other stories, this one has the added zing of being composed around the metaphor of an herb garden, with admonishments to beware of herbs that can be highly invasive. All mints make the list of dangerous herbs, and the narrator even offers a catalog of mint-inspired cocktails to manage the garden bounty: the classic Mojito, The Homewrecker, Bitter Tears, and The Stepmother.
Other stories that play with form include one in which a young woman catalogs the “amends” she makes to those she’s hurt as part of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step process (each “amend” made with a lack of sincerity or depth of feeling, thereby creating a new hurt), and one comprised of a list of conditional verbs (if this, then that) that had me laughing out loud until I understood it was about a sister who laments the loss of the close relationship she once had with a beloved sister. In “Irreconcilable Differences,” a series of escalating contradicting aphorisms (beginning with birds of a feather flock together and opposites attract and ending with nothing ventured, nothing gained and better safe than sorry) illustrate the beginning, middle and end of a marriage, from the perspective of the daughter. In this last example, after years of the parents’ antagonistic estrangement, the father is ill, and the mother reaches out with a kind note:
That moment, I realized my father would die soon, and that he and my mother both knew this, and understood that it was time, not to reconcile, but to reconcile their differences. Or rather, to allow their two versions to exist side-by-side, like those mottos would assert, with such efficient confidence, competing claims.
Clever though these stories are, each has a persistent beating heart. Mothers and fathers, and their children, the young and not so young, are captured before, during, and after divorce, each with their own coded language, lingo, and stash of memories. We recognize our own relationships and missteps, and the unintended consequences that inevitably accompany life’s changing familial landscape and the choices we’ve made or had thrust upon us by others. Each story in How Far I’ve Come is a gem, glittery with wit, polished with nuance, steeped in life’s inevitable, inescapable ironies. If you are, or have ever been a parent, a stepparent, a stepchild; divorced or married; a child or teen caught up in a family implosion, this collection will resonate and stick with you, long after you close the cover.