The Things She’ll Be Leav­ing Be­hind by Vanessa Farnsworth

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - JES­SICA ROSE

In The Things She’ll Be Leav­ing Be­hind, or­di­nary ob­jects—in­clud­ing a pair of plaid shoes, a ceil­ing tile, a quartz crys­tal, and a char­ac­ter’s own two feet—be­come ob­ses­sions, each of­fer­ing much-needed dis­trac­tion to the women who oc­cupy Vanessa Farnsworth’s de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. Though each has lit­tle in com­mon, the pro­tag­o­nists seem con­nected: they’re un­rav­el­ling, whether it’s their health, mar­riage, or san­ity that seem to be com­ing un­done. The women in this col­lec­tion have lit­tle con­trol over their cir­cum­stances, which in­clude in­fi­delity, spite­ful fam­ily mem­bers, and ill­ness.

“It’s amaz­ing what you learn about your­self when a pos­si­bil­ity sud­denly be­comes an im­pos­si­bil­ity,” writes Farnsworth in “Uni­ver­sal Health­care,” a story about Rose, who slipped on ice and hit her head so hard that her neck popped and “her en­tire body dis­ap­peared from ex­is­tence.” In the twenty-two sto­ries that make up The Things She’ll Be Leav­ing Be­hind, com­mon themes quickly emerge, among them bore­dom and iso­la­tion when char­ac­ters find them­selves in a hospi­tal bed or “se­questered in [a] god­for­saken cot­tage.” How­ever, most no­tably, there is a re­cur­ring theme of fail­ing health, as a num­ber of women grap­ple with the frailty of their own de­te­ri­o­rat­ing men­tal or phys­i­cal well­ness.

“Brenda no longer re­mem­bers what it’s like to live with­out pain or, for that mat­ter, what it’s like to stare at some­thing more in­ter­est­ing than an art­less stucco

ceil­ing. Or to not stare at all,” writes Farnsworth in the col­lec­tion’s epony­mous story. Farnsworth, a sci­ence jour­nal­ist and for­mer hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, is fa­mil­iar with writ­ing about health, hav­ing pub­lished a mem­oir in 2013, Rain on a Dis­tant Roof: A Per­sonal Jour­ney Through Lyme Dis­ease, about “one woman’s strug­gle to un­der­stand the dis­ease that’s de­stroy­ing her body and mind.” In both her mem­oir and short story col­lec­tion, the pub­lic health sys­tem has vil­lain­ous qual­i­ties, not al­ways hav­ing pa­tients’ best in­ter­ests in mind.

The sto­ries that in­habit the first half of The Things She’ll Be Leav­ing Be­hind feel for­mu­laic as a prob­lem is in­tro­duced and a dis­trac­tion quickly fol­lows; how­ever, deeper into the col­lec­tion, the sto­ries be­come nu­anced and com­plex. At times, it’s dif­fi­cult to know if el­e­ments of Farnsworth’s er­ratic plots are real or imag­ined, as strange char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing a laugh­ing clown and a long-dead grand­fa­ther, ap­pear.

The Things She’ll Be Leav­ing Be­hind isn’t writ­ten to make read­ers feel com­fort­able. In fact, it does the op­po­site, thrust­ing read­ers into the thick of some of life’s most in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tions, con­fronting them with in­ven­tive and bit­ing dia­logue. How­ever, even in their worst mo­ments, the women in this book are re­lat­able. When they find them­selves in the most out­landish sit­u­a­tions, read­ers can’t help but feel at least a shred of em­pa­thy.

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