While it’s become de rigueur to compare emerging short story practitioners with Munro, in the case of Willis, the comparison feels apt. Like Munro, Willis packs entire lifetimes into a scant few pages. And like Munro’s best work, these are stories concerned with the rueful backward glance; the almost archeological fascination with the lost ephemera of daily life ... While Willis’ concerns often veer into pop culture, she has a particular gift for exploring the simmering, underground power of teenage sexuality. Whether hooking up in the suburbs, skinny-dipping at summer camp, or trading shopping mall blowjobs for cash, her teenagers are in a perpetual struggle for autonomy, rapture, revelation, or simply a way to pass the time. As a whole, these are stories that eschew the tendency of many contemporary writers to call too much attention to acrobatic language or cool, ironic prose. Her writing is crisp, economical, unfailingly generous. These are compassionate stories, anchored in the belief that our lives achieve meaning through the stories we tell ourselves about our own experiences ... It’s this off-kilter two-step between deviance and redemption, shame and self-acceptance that imbues the work with its rich emotional power. This is a fully mature, beautiful realized collection. Indeed, in this dazzling suite of stories, Willis cements her rightful claim as a major new voice in Canadian fiction.
Deborah Willis delivers exemplary models of the form. Set in various Canadian towns, the stories feature a broad range of characters, each portrayed in strikingly confident prose ... Willis specializes in such images of grotesque intimacy ... When restricting herself to the events of a single night, Willis writes impeccably. The stories that stretch to accommodate a greater scope of time are less refined, and lack the precision of their companions. In writing such beautiful stories, Willis must meet the repeated challenge of making her next story as good as the last.
Out of the total thirteen stories, there were only a few that I didn’t care for. That’s a totally respectable ratio, all things considered. As with all collections, some of these stories stand out more than others. 'Girlfriend on Mars' and 'Todd' are absolutely harrowing, and easily my top two favorites. Stories like 'The Dark' and 'Welcome to Paradise' capture the female friendship dynamic in a way that’s scarily accurate ... Overall, this is one of the stronger collections I’ve read in a while and definitely worth checking out. The hits far outweigh the misses.
The mélange of characters and plot lines teases at the intricate warp and weft of human (and other) interactions, exploring the myriad lessons our most primal and complex emotion teaches us about identity, ambition, boundaries, connectedness, wanderlust, and addiction ... an accomplished, vivid, and memorable collection.
When I try to describe The Dark and Other Love Stories, the word I keep coming back to is spacious. There is so much room in these stories … Willis can take a well-worn premise or character—a lonely writer; teenage girls looking for trouble; an animal that is also a symbol—and make it feel newly personal and wrenching … Suffice it to say that Willis’ writing is funny and heartbreaking, deeply generous and insightful.