TERRACE STORY, by Hilary Leichter
Priced out of their first home in an unnamed city, a young couple and their infant daughter, Rose, move into a smaller apartment. It’s dark and confined, “the amicable kind of cramped.” When Edward shows it to his wife, Annie, for the first time, he says, “Give it some time, it might grow on you!” She replies, “You mean it might literally grow?”
Her sarcasm turns into prophecy as the magical realist plot of Hilary Leichter’s poignant and concise second novel, “Terrace Story,” unfolds. Actually — like this apartment, like the baby, like a marriage or the course of a life itself — this story does not so much unfold as expand, mushrooming beyond linear time and space to encompass not just what happens, but everything else that could have, too.
Structured as a collection of four linked stories, the book moves from Annie and Edward to another young couple, George and Lydia, who happens to be Rose’s daughter and is pregnant with her own. In the third section — the longest and most revelatory — Annie’s co-worker Stephanie is the focus of a grief-stricken origin story that deepens the novel’s supernatural fancies. The fourth section, set on an interstellar “suburb” as humanity migrates into outer space, brings Rose into contact with an “older woman” who is somehow Rose’s granddaughter.
“Terrace Story” is a more muted take on the multiverse than last year’s movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” in which parallel planes collide in action-sequence chaos, allowing an unhappily married, tax-audited laundromat owner to embody alternate selves as a movie star, a teppanyaki chef and a woman with hot dogs for fingers. By contrast, Leichter announces her metaphysical conceit with a simple dinner party. Arriving at Annie’s tiny apartment with a bottle of wine, Stephanie opens a closet door to reveal a large terrace her hosts have never seen before, gorgeously appointed with furniture and a grill and a geographically impossible sunset view (this side of the building faces east).
Without questioning these incongruities, Annie, Edward and Stephanie spend the night eating and drinking greedily, gratefully, lingering in the open air of their newly expanded quarters long after Rose falls asleep. For Annie, the additional square footage offers “a reunion with herself,” Leichter writes. “She had been accommodating some unknown injury for years. … Now, standing on the terrace, she woke to find her forgotten wound healed.”
No matter how “solid” the ground beneath them starts to feel, when Stephanie leaves, the terrace disappears. The couple summon their friend again and again, clinging to the version of their home, of themselves, that exists only in her company.
This is the novel’s elegant speculation: the possibility of embellishing the banal architecture of a life, of opening a physical door onto another, more desired existence at will. Even without the Marvel-like theatrics of “Everything Everywhere,” Leichter’s fiction leaves you similarly dizzy with longing — for the versions of yourself now beyond reach, for the people you imagined beside you who are no longer.
Leichter delicately stretches this longing across all four sections, not just as the impetus for space-time expansion, but as space itself, cavernous and protracted, intoxicating but desperately lonely. Early on, “Annie noticed real sadness along the edges of Stephanie’s voice and tried to locate what kind of space those edges indicated, how that space wanted to fill itself.” We learn that Stephanie witnessed the death of her younger sister in childhood, spent the funeral “expanding the size of the grave” with her mind, burrowing it so far into the ground that her sister came out the other side, alive: “They could both continue living as long as they were on opposite ends of the earth, Stephanie decided.”
Of course, the act of creation, of generating matter seemingly from nothing, is not just theoretical. Anchoring this story is a lineage of women, Rose and her progenitors and progeny — Annie and Lydia and Lydia’s daughter, Anne — women whose bodies swell to accommodate new futures again and again, “a surge of space hidden in an already expanding pattern.”
Whereas Stephanie maintains her childlike delusion of a universe without endings, of a “tangent world” in which her sister never dies, Lydia obsesses over George’s death (“Who would be there to bury her if he died first? Oh, right. She touched her belly”) and writes about extinctions for a living (shrimp, salmon, snails). What makes a mother’s creation realer than the terrace is her persistent fear of, her absolute reverence for, its necessary counterweight: loss.
Eventually, the balance of nature prevails. “You can’t make something bigger without taking away from something else,” a college classmate and future physics teacher tells Stephanie. Her mentally unstable suite mate puts it another way: “Making the world bigger won’t save it. It will just make it hurt worse when it’s gone.” But decades later, after Stephanie has deprived Annie of both a terrace and a very real job, the novel takes a Dorian Gray-like turn. “She had been taking, and taking, and taking,” Stephanie finally realizes about herself. “Maybe all these years she had been borrowing from the other side of the door.”
Like any narrative imposed on a life, the terrace is a fiction, a nest built out of thin air and thinner fantasies. It’s too fragile to hang your weight on, but that’s not what it’s there for. When Rose is born and everything is still possibility, Annie and Edward dream of one day having “a bit of outdoors all their own.” When it mysteriously materializes, Annie basks in the glow of string lights and sunset, because who wouldn’t? “The way the breeze felt on her forehead,” her husband’s vivid “fables” of vacations not taken and fortunes never inherited — you can call these delusions, but you can also call them hope.
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.
TERRACE STORY | By Hilary Leichter | 192 pp. | Ecco | $28
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