Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

Little, Brown and Company 2015

Hardback: $25

Reviewed by Meghann Hart

In late summer, the pale green honeydew becomes sweet, so sweet that many choose to enjoy its flesh in balls or canoe-like slices as a dessert. I opened Honeydew, not in summer, but in winter. This strange, rectangular melon was authored, not by a gardener, but by a contemporary master of the short story: Edith Pearlman. As I sat up in bed reading Pearlman’s latest gaggle of stories, all situated in the fictive Massachusetts city of Godolphin, a thick, nacreous juice began to drip from the pages and ooze down my wrists. Some might call this magic. I call it good writing. If you still don’t want to read this book, you should. Here are five reasons why:

Where Biology and Magic Meet You won’t see a deluge of flower petals falling from the sky in this collection. No, the corkscrews of narrative in Honeydew are all nakedly human ones. You will, however, be quick to spot the suprahuman peculiarities of the characters that people Pearlman’s world. Lyle, the teenage protagonist of “Wait and See,” does not perceive the world as other humans do. By sleight of DNA’s mutatious hand, he has inherited the capacity to see the world in many, many colors, an experience that lends daily life a multidimensionality far beyond the pale of standard human experience. When Lyle views a lemon, “he sees in the humble fruit….a tangle of hundreds of shades, ribbons of sunlight crushed into an egg.” Trichromacy, Pearlman calls it. In a world so overwhelmingly dominated by a dichromatic vision, how will the tender Lyle weather his unique gift?


Witchy Women   In this world there exist women: your run-of-the-mill women, who work in hair salons and homeless shelters. They are the quiet ones who go about their work, say little, yet know much. People flock to these women, eager to pour their secrets into them. In form, these women are indeed women. In eye and in spirit, however, they are something else. There is something about the eyes, if you look closely, a dark and subtle gleam, like a window into outer space, or into the very bottom of a black hole. These are the women who make the world go round. Occasionally, you’ll see one bent over your yellow, mangled toenails—alternately, in Edith Pearlman’s work, they have names like Paige and Acelle—and you will see them often, if not everywhere.


Plant. If you read this book for no other reason, you should read it to meet and observe Plant. I don’t mean, here, to suggest that Plant is, in any way, human, but that this plant does indeed have a life and appearance all its own. As the charge of the charmingly off-kilter, Delliloesque Flaxbaum family of “Blessed Harry,” Plant flourishes in a dining room corner through steady infusions of mouthwash, fish flakes, and primrose extract. Plant is difficult to identify, as no listed genus-species pair seems to capture all that Plant is. Perhaps Plant is some rare variety of succulent, or perhaps plant has defied evolution and biology all together, and, in its agency, simply refuses to be defined by anyone.


Death Draws Closer For some, the lucky or not so lucky few, death happens all at once: a fall down the steps, a breaking of the neck, a quick cessation of the heart (preferably during sleep): other variations. For most, though, the real decline into death often has a clear, if not immediate, beginning. It is this steady yet inevitable decline, radiating out from an easily identifiable moment of transition towards death, that many humans fear, a phenomenon of contemporary post-industrial death that Pearlman captures well on several narrative occasions (i.e., the insidious curdling of a lover’s schlera, an individuated fall down a short flight of rather ordinary stairs).


Sensitive Sensuality If you would like to read about some sex that is actually sexy, you might want to give Pearlman’s work a try. I don’t mean to say that Pearlman is some kind of master choreographer of sex, her characters glistening acrobats of the bedroom, but when sex happens (and it certainly does), the intense connectivity that exists between the characters is real. There is also a notable diversity of sex in this collection: old sex and young sex, married sex and unmarried sex, sex with power differentials, and sex without them. Perhaps Pearlman herself is suprahuman. Similar to the characters she writes about, her emotional and sensual intelligence seem to be off the charts, stunning—and particularly so when she writes about sex.


To read Honeydew is to come away a little richer, a little better, a little smarter. In the final story, which shares the name of the book, Pearlman, through the voice of her bug-obsessed, anorexia-ridden character Emily, reveals to her audience the existence of a honeydew that doesn’t have anything in common with the melon, save its sweetness: “…Exodus describes…a fine frost on the ground with a taste like honey…it was really Coccidae excrement. Coccidae feed on the sap of plants. The sugary liquid rushes through the gut and out the anus…Nomads still eat it….It is called honeydew.”