reviewed by Sarah Abbott, November 2015
From pet hedgehogs to the politics of suburbia, Jacob M. Appel weaves humor with striking observations and fascinating characters in Einstein’s Beach House.
The collection is diverse. In the title story, a family scams tourists into paying for guided tours of their home because a guidebook incorrectly lists their address for Einstein’s former beach cottage. “Paracosmos” narrates how a child’s imaginary friend eventually breaks her family apart. No two stories feel the same, but they build into a satisfying and imaginative collection.
In one sense, Appel explores how we become who we are. In “The Rod of Asclepius,” Lauren—now a doctor—chronicles her six-year-old self’s growing awareness that her father is a serial killer, though Appel’s revelations aren’t always so dramatic. Sometimes they’re as simple and true-to-life as a middle-aged man recognizing that he didn’t miss out on his high school crush; she missed out on him. Appel is a master of time. Not only does he understand its impact on us—how we change and stay the same—but he manipulates it so that weeks, months, or even years can pass without any loss of tension.
More than anything else, however, the stories in Einstein’s Beach House revolve around the mind’s extraordinary ability to adapt to the world through distraction, denial, and fantasy. Lizzie, a thirteen-year-old girl in “Hue and Cry,” knows that her father is dying from mad cow disease, but she spends most of the story focused on other things—like her attraction to her best friend and the mystery of the sex offender who moved in down the block—until the moment when “it struck her that her father and the sex offender were roughly the same age, that they were both relatively young and futureless.” There’s never any doubt in this collection that Appel knows what his characters want, and he knows that sometimes they most want to avoid the truth.
He delivers insights like the one above with subtlety and an occasional dose of humor. For instance, the narrator of “Limerence” remarks that he outgrew “definitive meanings” along with baseball. This merge of the cerebral and the down-to-earth makes Appel’s prose compelling, along with rich backstory and believably flawed characters.
In “Strings,” a story about a female rabbi whose ex-lover attempts to conduct a four-hundred-cello concert in the sanctuary of her synagogue, the narrator remarks that her new husband is an “ordinary kind of wonderful.” Appel takes the ordinary—the mundane and the human—and makes it wonderful.