Face Value by Paula Margulies

FaceValue-CoverFace Value (self-published, 2014) is a collection of ten stories by Paula Margulies. This fairly short read is set mostly in San Diego and often features a woman who cares for an aging father, though not all stories have this character.

Many times, the stories end when they’re just getting going. More than once I turned the page to find a new story and was surprised in a bad way. In the title story, an incestuous relationship later leads to the main character living as a shut-in, but the story ends when she lets a stranger in her door. Who is he? Why does she just now let in a person–one she doesn’t know? This information isn’t really a spoiler, as it’s not very informative. The same abrupt ending happened in “Weatherman,” “Labrador Blues,” and “Have You Seen Me?”

Margulies asks for an emotional response from readers when she has not invested the time to elicit such a response. In “Bird Song,” the narrator finds a wild bird that has knocked itself out on her window, so she decides to keep in. After buying tons of supplies for the animal, she finds it predictably dead the next morning. Only when she is burying the bird’s body in her yard does she cry for her lonely father, dead mother, ex-boyfriend, and the bird. However, I didn’t know enough about these characters to cry with–or care about–her pain.

“Obedience Training” and “Bird Song” both make use of easy metaphor. While the bird’s death connected the narrator’s other experiences with death, “Obedience Training” linked a bite from a strange dog that looked trustworthy to the narrator’s decision to not meet again with her husband who has left her. The author so carefully does all the work for the reader to make sure we don’t miss the connection that the metaphor loses all credibility. Had Margulies spent more time establishing who the narrator was and what her husband was like, the link to the dog wouldn’t be so obvious.

Face Value does provide some interesting ideas. In “Portal Gallery,” a woman who typically dumps crap art on a gallery promises that some kaleidoscopes she has are of great value. The story ends too quickly, too easily, and with little food for thought, but the kernel of something good was there. “Weatherman,” too, was an interesting concept: imagine being the guy who reads the weather for San Diego, a place where the weather pretty much never changes, and then one day a snow storm changes everything. While an interesting idea, the ending was quick and made little logical sense within the world Margulies had created.

There are two stories that definitely needed more development, but both had some genuine dialogue that I wanted to see a lot more of. In “Free Fall,” an aging man running away from home meets a young Latina named Leticia. At a restaurant, they discuss what the world has handed them. Leticia feels things are pretty clear for her:

“I can educate myself all I want, but the world’s still gonna see me as a dumb chola. No one cares about me. Maybe if I was born in another time and another place, it’d be different. But, hey, I’m here. This is where I got thrown down.”

That expression–“where I got thrown down”–was like magic in the middle of this story, magic that worked on so many levels: Leticia is where she is because that is where she was born, but she was already abused–thrown down–before she even was formed as a person.

“Have You Seen Me?” also had a special moment in dialogue. The narrator, a grown woman caring for her aging father, arrives home from volunteering at the animal shelter:

“There was a new rabbit at the shelter tonight,” I said. “I got to watch it give birth to two babies.”

My father grunted. He was allergic to cats, a convenient excuse for not allowing me to have pets at the house.

“You spend so much time there,” he said. “I’m surprised you don’t give birth to a few rabbits yourself.”

“It’s not that much time,” I said. “And if I wanted to give birth, it would be to something better than a rabbit.”

“I thought nothing was better than a rabbit,” he replied, the hint of a smile in his voice.

This little banter between father and daughter was delightful, as both a present love between them and an understood history of the narrator’s life as an unmarried and childless woman shine through. The exchange does double duty.

Face Value is a collection that needs revision in order to fully work through plots, make readers care about characters, and avoid cliches and stereotypes. When a story began with a unique concept, it showed promised, but that promise never fully turned into something memorable.

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