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Review | A heart-wrenching novel for fans of Emily St. John Mandel and Ted Chiang

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Hilary Leichter’s second novel, “Terrace Story,” begins with a magical terrace, but it also comes by its title from its characters’ private language: “Annie and Edward called these Terrace Stories, because when you are in a place that does not really exist, you can populate it with as many fables and legends as you like.”

“Terrace Story” is told in four sections. In the first, “Terrace,” a couple with a young child discover a hidden terrace off their cramped apartment, accessible only under very specific circumstances and only through their overstuffed closet. The second, “Folly,” traces the decline and rebuilding of another couple’s marriage through the eyes of their daughter. The third, “Fortress,” follows the coming-of-age of a lonely woman with a hidden gift; the fourth, “Cantilever,” takes place in space.

By the final chapter, everything connects in this gentle puzzle-box of a book, but to explain more would be to set sail in a sea of spoilers. To say less would mean calling on an even bigger ocean of generalities: “Terrace Story” is a story about stories. It is about love, memory, time, space and what one character deems “life’s inadequate plot.” But most novels are about at least some of these things. “Terrace Story” is deeply influenced by the shape and feel of the classic fairy tale, shimmering with the kind of simple language and visceral imagery of a Grimm yarn. This is not particularly new, either — though, as the author herself might remind us, what story is?

Four impressive short-story collections

It is in Leichter’s careful treatment of these motifs that the book takes on fresh and vital significance. More than the plot twists or mid-novel disclosures that propel the book forward — twists that more-savvy readers might predict (I did not) — the pleasure of “Terrace Story” is in the telling, in occupying space with these characters, their moods, their pains and joys.

This is especially true of “Fortress,” the title a reference to the childhood nickname of its stoic protagonist. It is the longest section of the book and, in many ways, the novel’s heart, not only laying bare the mechanism of the book’s inciting event but also the story’s speculative logic and its emotional core. “Always, she had assumed she was misunderstood,” the protagonist muses, “but that’s because she had thought events happened in order.” The notion that the fabric of space and time could be forever changed by one individual’s “Big Feelings,” to borrow a term from contemporary parenting parlance, seems over the top, until it isn’t — until we remember Big Feelings might be the only things that can alter reality and, in the process, forge impossible connections.

This slender volume, which comes in at just under 200 pages, keeps cozy, heart-wrenching company with the philosophical fiction of Emily St. John Mandel and the rigorous, fantastical imagination of Ted Chiang.

Fans of Leichter’s first novel, “Temporary,” might be disappointed to find that her follow-up lacks her debut’s picaresque charms and satiric edge. Partaking equally of Simon Rich’s humor and Alexandra Kleeman’s colorful rage, “Temporary” centers on a perpetual temp, from a long line of perpetual temps. She is desperate for a permanent position, be it at a major corporation, on a pirate ship or perched on the edge of a cliff. It is an absurdist, melancholic vision of an alternative world that isn’t so different from our own. “Terrace Story,” by contrast, explores the weird possibilities, the volatilities and fractures, lurking beneath commonplace surfaces.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some notable shared qualities between the two books; the apocalypse, for example, makes a cameo in each. And “Temporary” and “Terrace Story” both offer immersive and embodied reading experiences, enmeshed in what a peripheral character in the new novel calls the “matter of matter.” “Temporary” creates a kind of buzzing in the ears, a tingling in the fingers, while the reader of “Terrace Story” floats on top of a chilly wave, somehow meditative and tense at the same time.

Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Maryland.

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POST AUTHOR: Annie Berke

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