On the outs. One point of view dominates the novella and five short stories of Johanna Kaplan’s Other People’s Lives. And most often, this outside-looking-in stance results from a combination of culture and self-imposed exile. This tension plays out with pathos, and often laugh-out-loud humor in this remarkable collection.
The title piece is the novella, and it contains the story of Louise, who is placed in the apartment of a famous dancer’s family. It establishes the collection’s tone and point of view and theme right away, and goes further: it puts the story in the consciousness of a mental patient, Louise, who sometimes can’t trust what she sees and hears. She apparently has hallucinations, and may have petit mal seizures. A healthy portion of the energy of this story comes from Maria, the German wife of the famous dancer, who manically mangles English, to terrific comic effect.
Other stories feature girls in junior high or high school, at camp, or home sick from school, or babysitting. They have in common an intelligent, if a little eccentric, female Jewish protagonist, who sees and approaches the world on her own terms. Often there is a wise-cracking vulnerability to these appealing creatures, and few have any problems speaking up to the frequently addled adults they live with or near.
Other People’s Lives rides a groundswell of endearing, exposed, nervous humanity. Its mouthpieces already have a couple of strikes against them, being Jewish and female (except for one Chinese girl in Vietnam), and they stake out their ground in ways that range from sassy to cranky to plaintive. This is a highly assured collection for a debut piece, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976, and won the National Jewish Book Award. Reading this collection was a delightful experience and I recommend it highly.