Eight quirky stories fill the pages of Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. Looking back over the list of titles, I only was drawn into three of them. And I had major objections to one. So it often goes with short story collections. But I expected more from an established author like Russell.
What I liked:
Reeling for the Empire is a piece of chilling speculative fiction, set in an innovative but cruel silk factory.
Proving Up brought me back to my recent read, Prairie Fires, and the lives of long-ago settlers trying to earn the right to own land.
The Barn at the End of Our Term was a humorous and ironic view of reincarnated Presidents.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove had some new ideas about vampire life (irony intended) but was ultimately unsatisfying.
My least favorite story (climbs on soapbox):
The New Veterans is the story of a massage therapist and a man who is her client. You may remember that’s my career. I’m especially sensitive to the way massage is portrayed in the media. And Russell gets it wrong in countless ways. Now I know how my librarian friends feel when fictional librarians behave in ridiculously nonsensical ways.
The fundamental concept is this: massage therapist works in a spa-based program for veterans with chronic pain. Clients get ten weekly sessions according to a grant from the VA. The therapist, a single woman named Beverly, is a bit of a sad sack. She doesn’t have much life beyond her work. And when Derrick comes into her practice, she gets over-involved, to say the least.
He has a large back tattoo depicting a pivotal moment in his service career. As she works with his back, the tattoo seems to interact with her. She begins to think she can take on his pain, so that he will experience less PTSD and have a better life.
Russell creates a story with elements of magical realism that are alluring. But, for me, the magic has to have some grounding in reality in order to work. And the author misses that mark. Here are the story elements that make my skin crawl.
As therapists we care deeply about our clients health and well-being. But we also learn that having boundaries is both healthy and ethical. Beverly has a very fluid sense of boundaries with this particular client. This wouldn’t be a sustainable attitude for most therapists, and Russell says her character has had a long career.
The dialogue between Beverly and Derrick was unlike any conversation I’ve had in 15 years of being a professional massage therapist. Part of the problem was the tone used by audiobook narrator Romy Rosemont, which ranged from snippy to nasty. But fundamentally, Russell makes Beverly’s behavior incredibly inappropriate.
Beverly berates her client when he experiences pain during her massage. She basically tells him he needs to “man up.” Massage therapists aren’t drill sergeants. Everyone’s experience of pain is valid and uniquely their own. Any legitimate therapist knows this, and would never berate a client for expressing discomfort.
She asks him a ton of intensely personal questions about the tattoo. Again she ignores boundaries, and fails to give him space to relax. When Derrick falls asleep in another session, Beverly is cranky as she awakens him. In reality, most therapists are complimented when a client snoozes.
Beverly calls Derrick on the phone and asks him to come in for an unscheduled session. Her request is purely related to the side effects she’s feeling from the “imaginative” work she’s done for him. Her massages become all about herself instead of about her client. While these things might happen in real life, they aren’t the way most massage therapists work.
Russell uses the term patient to describe the veteran. Generally we call them clients unless we’re in a clinical setting. But this is a small point. Another small point is pronunciations. The narrator mispronounced a few anatomical terms like sacrum and fascia. One of my pet peeves, this is the narrator’s job to get right. Also this type of massage would be performed at the VA, not in a spa environment. Again, smaller issue than those above.
Bottom line, I don’t think Russell ran any of this story by a professional massage therapist. She may have received countless massages in her life. But writing from the therapist’s perspective is completely different than from the client’s. I have to wonder if she asked her own therapist to read the story. This wouldn’t likely be the most objective feedback, since therapists sometimes fear offending clients.
There is a lot of evidence-based research on the use of massage in the treatment of chronic pain. Using its drug-free qualities to treat veterans is a wonderful and logical thing. I think Russell demeans both these programs and the massage therapy profession in her story The New Veterans.
I realize I’ve taken The New Veterans literally. It’s all narrative device and creative license, right? Maybe for you. But for me it was just offensive stereotyping of valuable professionals who demonstrably benefit millions of people. I’m hereby climbing down from my soapbox. Thanks for reading this far!