In her memoir and guide to fiction writing, Bird by Bird, from 1994, the best-selling author Anne Lamott explained that she kept an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk as a reminder to focus on small details: “The river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry.” Cocktail is filled with this type of telling observation.
Throughout Lisa Alward’s debut story collection, deceptively unassuming items — an old robin’s nest, a baby cardigan, a cigarette butt, a pot of hyacinths — prompt a diverse cast of characters to reflect on events that have changed their lives. Their contemplations take readers across times and places in Canada, from 1960s Saint John and 1980s Halifax to modern-day Montreal. Alward’s sure-footed writing ably steers readers through stories about injuries, marriages, new parenthood, and other watershed moments.
Some characters have transformative experiences after learning others’ secrets. In “Maeve,” the unnamed narrator is irritated by the title character, a domineering, socially conscious mother who issues “edicts on breast vs. bottle, natural vs. epidural, cloth vs. paper.” Maeve brings to mind the annoying “student-activist types,” those who are “always so sure of being on the righteous side.” Yet since the narrator’s two-year-old son, Joshua, and Maeve’s young daughter, Bethany, “seem to be inseparable,” a play date invitation is accepted. Upon arriving at Maeve’s home, a large house in the country, the narrator is shocked by its chaotic state, including kitchen counters covered in “cereal bowls stained orange from Kraft Dinner” and stairs littered with “Zellers flyers and tiny plastic barrettes in the shapes of daisies and butterflies.” When Maeve’s permissive parenting style conflicts with her own more cautious approach, the narrator realizes she’s entered a strange power struggle with the “warrior queen” who is six years her junior. The visit becomes “a test, a test of my mothering.” And it’s too late to turn back.
Elsewhere, Alward deftly captures close encounters that characters can’t stop thinking about — sometimes decades later. In “Cocktail,” the speaker recalls one such incident from girlhood. At a party hosted by her parents, a drunken attendee with a “long, angular face,” “very thin, his shoulder blades propping up his suit jacket like a wire hanger,” snuck into her bedroom. The defenceless girl was petrified as the unwelcomed visitor inched nearer: “I could smell his breath now and examine his freckles up close.” Her older brother quickly appeared and scared him off, but the complicated mix of disgust and desire she felt has stuck with her ever since: “Even after high school, I was still looking for him.” Decades later, she gets drunk at her own parties, searching for any man who will pay her the same special attention as her “gin‑drinking guardian angel.”
Perhaps the collection’s most poignant story, “Wise Men Say,” follows a senior publishing executive, Penelope Simon, who reflects on her callous behaviour during a summer fling some thirty years earlier. The first time she saw the “Halifax hoser” Al Foley, with his “squeaky-white Adidas knockoffs and Boston Bruins T‑shirt,” she wrote him off, believing that any relationship between them “wouldn’t go anywhere.” But he was cute —“six feet or more, with big arms, loose brown hair, and surprisingly long eyelashes”— and heaped attention on her. A romance ensued, but it quickly fizzled out. In her early twenties, his earnest adoration had been a turnoff: “She thought he looked silly in his beige corduroy blazer and glanced away when he ordered a third carafe. He kept telling her how much he was going to miss her.” After returning to school in Toronto, she even discarded his only letter, a “plodding description of vocational school” featuring “childlike handwriting and misspelling of university.” Now in her fifties, Penelope reckons with her mistreatment of the infatuated young man: “How odd that it had taken her this long, almost her whole life, to realize that she loved him.”
For others, home improvement projects prove turning points. In “Hawthorne Yellow,” Tracey and her husband buy a fixer-upper: an Edwardian detached with “good bones.” The idealistic woman imagines “herself and James lovingly restoring the old house together,” including “long hours spent stripping and crack filling and painting like the sunlit couples on the line-of-credit flyers.” However, six months later, infuriated by his wife’s “nagging,” James takes a steak knife to the walls of the guest room. Feeling remorseful, he employs a painter, Alex, to clean up the mess, but Tracey senses trouble with the new hire: “There was something almost too bright, too deliberate about his white coveralls as if he’d dressed the part, or been dressed for it by someone else.” Tracey becomes caught up in a series of close calls as she spies on the man with the “remote, self-contained air of a Tibetan monk” and inexplicably finds herself attracted to him: “Curled behind her husband’s sleeping back, she thought about Alex’s hand on the putty knife.”
Alward explores a different sort of family tension in the gripping story “Bundle of Joy,” about a judgmental grandmother who travels to a nameless city to visit her thirtysomething daughter, Erin, and her newborn grandson. Ruth, perpetually negative, can’t help but point out Erin’s shortcomings: her skin is “blotchy,” her boyfriend is an “unremarkable data-analyst,” her duplex is not in a “new or particularly fashionable subdivision.” Alward skillfully depicts the pair’s uneasy relationship, ratcheting up the suspense with each glass of wine they consume. Their increasingly revealing confessions bring decades of unspoken resentment and unresolved issues to the surface, among them offences that Ruth “no longer clearly remembered but knew had been piling up for years like dead leaves behind a shed.”
Through reflective and relatable narratives, Cocktail offers a successful study of vulnerabilities with which many readers will identify. Don’t we all burn daylight creeping past lovers on Facebook? Haven’t we all peered through cracks in doorways when we know we shouldn’t have? Who among us hasn’t foolishly forgiven a betrayal? Alward suggests that although such experiences are universal, they leave unique marks on each of us. Even seemingly insignificant details can recall those lingering effects. Sometimes, she reminds us, it’s the small details that have the most profound impact.