All’s Fair and Other California Stories by Linda Feyder is a collection of thirteen short stories connected by their California settings. The stories are also connected by the point at which the author drops us into her characters’ lives. As with most resonant short stories—those that allow us to step into worlds other than our own, and that create the sense of fully-fleshed lives that continue in our minds beyond the closing paragraph—these stories present their characters at key moments of change, crisis, or the dawning awareness that this is all there will be. The endings are subtle and evocative; the reader is left with curiosity, questions, and a tendency to speculate, and care, about what will happen next.
Feyder’s stories introduce the reader to a diverse set of characters and backgrounds. A number of the stories involve characters who have recently arrived in, or returned to, California: an older couple who move to the desert from New York for health reasons; a Mexican woman who migrates to California in hopes of finding greater opportunities; a girl traveling to California to spend time with her estranged father; a young man who grapples with his sexuality when he returns to his California home after a professional setback.
The prose is fluid and inviting, with a range of points of view from first person to third, and with protagonists of varying ages and genders. At times the author brings us very close to her characters’ thoughts and experiences, and at other times we obtain a wider, more omniscient view. This variety is one of the collections strengths.
In the titular story, “All’s Fair,” Joyce, an older woman caring for her ailing husband, experiences the isolation of the caregiving role, and of life in a new and alien environment (from the bustle of Manhattan to a Palm Desert condominium community). A quirky, twelve-year-old albino becomes an unlikely companion. The boy seeks her out to share his “finds,” including a restored Studebaker, two crickets mating, a tenant’s bra transformed into a ping-pong table net. She follows him, rationalizing, “She should indulge his wishes because life had dealt him a pitiless blow, one colorless and pale, and she had seen it reduce her husband too, reducing him to a bedridden tyrant.” While we are privy to her thoughts, we don’t entirely believe her, for it also seems that she follows this boy for other reasons—loneliness, to enjoy a moment’s distraction, as an escape from the confines of her new normal.
In “Joint Custody,” the longest, and arguably most complex story in the collection, the point of view shifts between several characters, bringing us different slants on a complicated child custody arrangement. We have Ann, the mother, raising her daughter Emily on her own in New York; a family friend who delivers Emily to the girl’s father in Southern California when Ann leaves for a business trip to London; Emily herself, a teenager who scarcely remembers living with her father; and, the father, a bohemian-type who has had minimal contact with his only child and who now has a new, very young, girlfriend. Layering these distinct vantage points reveals the confusing, awkward, and potentially damaging consequences divorce and its aftermath hold for Emily.
In addition to being a skilled storyteller, Linda Feyder is a practicing psychotherapist in New York City. From the thirteen compelling, thought-provoking stories in All’s Fair, it is evident that her observational skills and empathy for the human condition serve her well in both capacities. The situations and scenarios she brings to life on the page will be resonant and relatable for many.