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The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus

The familiar woes of middle age are fresh and funny when captured in couplets

An elderly, ailing parent. A child about to fly the nest. Menopause. Tensions in a longtime marriage. And certain irrefutable signs of aging, glimpsed in a department-store mirror (hence the title). These are familiar midlife issues, but poetry’s sharp focus enables Sones to keep them fresh. Separate verses spotlight individual moments of reckoning or recognition, freeing the author to skip the mundane connective tissue that a realistic prose novel requires. (Her poem titles also work harder than most: One about a dressing room is headlined “Chamber of Horrors.”) As the story progresses from Holly’s 50th birthday to her 51st, these vivid snapshots accumulate to form a fully dimensional portrait of a self-aware, generous-hearted woman who knows that her crises are entirely ordinary (a realization that makes them no less taxing).

Sones expertly juggles humor and pathos as Holly grapples with the challenging changes in her life. Samantha gets into the college of her dreams, but it’s 3,000 miles away. Ordered off those prescribed steroids, Holly’s mother sinks into a depression and stops eating. Michael disappears for hours on end without explanation, and Holly surprises him several times in covert conversation with a fellow mom far sexier than herself. Are they having an affair? With all these worries, it’s no wonder that Holly can’t finish her new book of poems, now a year behind schedule. She feels overwhelmed, threatened by impending loss on every front. Even the pepper tree in her backyard, which she and Michael planted long ago to celebrate Samantha’s conception, is dying.

It’s not giving too much away to reassure readers that things mostly turn out all right. They will have guessed from the warm, unabashedly sentimental tone of Sones’s verses that she will not maroon her appealing heroine in the depths of despair on the final page. Tears will be shed — especially when we glimpse Samantha in her new college dorm, clasping to her chest a stuffed animal from childhood — but they will be matched by smiles of rueful acknowledgment. Children grow up, parents age, spouses quarrel, and dead trees must be chopped down. But new trees can be planted, new poems can be written, long-delayed books can be finished. And Holly can settle down fireside in her living room,

…curled up like a comma
on my couch,

swaddled in
my husband’s velvet arms,

watching sparks
play chase games up the flue,

breathing in
our pepper tree’s sweet scent.

That’s a marvelous, moving image of contentment. And it’s deepened by the knowledge that even though loss and change are inevitable, they are never the whole story.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar, reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, AARP The Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times.

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