In Sidewalk Dancing, Letitia Moffitt gives us scenes from the lives of a family of three, telling their story in a collection of tales. The stories, most of which have been individually published in magazines, work on their own though they are best read as chapters in the given order. The chilling first story, “Knives,” whose punch will be better appreciated by the end of the collection, is followed by “Model Homes,” set in Hawaii, where we read about Grace, a Chinese immigrant, and her husband, George, a city planner, who move with their daughter, Miranda, into an impractical house, designed by him, that looks like a starfish. It is the summer of 1970, and Grace presciently sees their lives unfolding there. The writer uses the house to good effect and the reader will feel touched reading the last story, “Sidewalk Dancing,” when Moffitt skillfully imparts additional significance to the home in the trio’s entwined destinies.
In her third story, “Only Say True,” Moffitt echoes Amy Tan in exploring the mother/daughter relationship and she actually invokes Tan as a source of friction between Grace and Miranda. Grace wants her daughter, who majored in English Literature, to be a successful writer like Tan, whereas her ambition for herself is only to be a good wife and mother. Though Grace often sounds like a stereotypical Chinese immigrant, she and her husband are eccentrics and outsiders. The mother fears intruders will break into their house and she goes through several phases; first, at night, she props chairs against doors, then she hangs decorative Christmas bells on doorknobs, and after that she makes her daughter leave dog food on the porch. The father is a follower of Thoreau, thrice divorced, full of unpractical ideas, and unable to hold a job down until he and his wife open a restaurant. One of the best stories, “Codicils,” deals with his fear of dying prematurely after he attends his mother’s funeral.
Moffitt refreshingly combines the stories to construct a novel instead of just developing interconnected tales. One of the advantages of this form, less than an actual novel but greater than a collection of stories, is that the writer can afford to be sparing. She doesn’t overburden us with a full account of how Miranda came to be the way she is though we understand she didn’t have a chance to grow up to be a normal kind of person and have an ordinary life. The stories build upon each other, drawing us further into the familial world the author creates, which also gradually extends to Grace’s relatives. Moffitt may be sparing about events, but not so with her details, which can either blossom or drag down her prose. Here her language is rich: “The shop was filled with bolts dripping blazing lames, stifling taffeta, a million shades of pink from blinding neon to washed-out pale, screaming florals and foaming lace.”
In the titular story, she skillfully sweeps us through time, backward and forward, as well as gives us an arresting paragraph where time slows for the reader: “That very morning, in fact, she found a wounded mynah flopping on the side porch, one wing crimped up over its back like a cape, lurching as if palsied, seriously injured and suffering. She had to break its neck quickly before anyone else saw, with a sharp, practiced gesture (so many things people didn’t know she had done, could still do–things they’d never know about her). The bird made a peculiar sound, like a long sigh of relief, when she did it.”
The stories about the couple employ the third person point of view whereas those featuring Miranda employ the first person narrator, except for “Incognito,” where the character uses the second person pronoun to good stylistic effect. The shift in perspective adds to the jigsaw puzzle effect of the story, though the self-absorbed Miranda can be a tedious narrator. We don’t have a short story celebrating a positive emotion or a happy event or an accomplishment (George’s house turns out to be a failure), not that it is a shortcoming. Sidewalk Dancing showcases the messy lives of a dysfunctional family without ever giving us a complete picture, but the pieces we have are enough.