Hotel of the Saints
Ursula Hegi's 1994 novel Stones From the River was a well-written, nearly transcendent work that attracted Oprah Winfrey's eye and catapulted the author onto bestseller lists when the talk-show host selected the book for her on-air reading group. In 2000, Hegi published a companion novel, The Vision of Emma Blau, which shared characters and a time line but lacked the earlier book's elegance and richness.
One of the shortcomings of Vision was Hegi's decision to write the novel in three separate voices. (Stones featured one complicated and engaging narrator.) She gave each voice a new name, but to the reader, the identities were interchangeable. There was no discernible difference in the tone or telling.
If the author's new short-story collection is any indication, this is a recurring problem. Hotel of the Saints serves up 11 stories with very little action and nearly identical narration. The characters share so much in terms of concerns and voice that even careful readers are likely to fear they've mistakenly bookmarked the middle of a story they've already finished.
Mothers worry about their children's choices, couples separate and divorce, a son watches his needy father try on a new obsession. All of the movement in these stories is internal, and it's not nearly enough. Time and again Hegi ends a story with a character's long-awaited epiphany, brought on by watching a juggler or revisiting an emotionally charged vacation site, but the transformations feel false. Readers need more external action to justify such dramatic changes of heart, or at least enough insight into the character to see that the tectonic plates have been shifting for some time.
Even the best story in the collection isn't entirely successful. The fablelike "A Town Like Ours" follows the evolution of two connected families--twin brothers who marry and build houses next to one another--and attempts to show that little actions, whether kindnesses or slights. define our relationships with others. Told from the point of view of a neighbor, the story does a fine job of relating observations, but its characters never get close enough for the reader to see.