ME OF THE 13 stories in Kenneth Radu's collection, The Cost of Living, seem formulaic, or else they tackle stock "issues," or "problems." For instance, "The Prodigy Makers" is about a girl with normal, average, healthy interests who is forced by her parents to become a student of classical piano. Like all the stories here, it is well written, but niceties of style cannot save it. When at the end the girl, Felice, smashes a mirror and rakes her pianist's fingers through the glass, one cannot help feeling that this is too pat a resolution, one more suited to television "drama" than the short story.
"Which Is the Road to Florence?," the story that opens the collection, is more successful. It describes the meeting of a journalist and an old, diseased woman who, years before, was caught up in the various stages of the Chinese revolution. The daughter of one of the Western businessmen whom the Chinese saw as their exploiters and enslavers, she was taken prisoner and allowed to think that she would soon be executed. Instead of execution, however, her fate was to be held in a kind of limbo, endlessly awaiting some resolution a resolution that, at the end of the story, comes when she begins to write about her experiences. In nine short pages, though at times events seem more abbreviated than compressed, Radu conveys an entire individual fife played out against the large indifference of historical events. The point of the story seems to be that, although the woman cannot escape her material fate, she achieves a kind of victory of the spirit simply by surviving to write about her fife.
Another story, "Bottom's Dream," almost succeeds: a woman raped when she was in high school encounters her rapist by chance many years later. He does not recognize her, and it is not until she is sitting in his house with his family and children that he realizes who she is. There is a fine tension created by the possibility that she will blurt out his secret, as well as by the polite civility of both rapist and victim. The story is about the ordinariness of people who commit or fall victim to such extraordinary acts of violence as rape. The safe, respectable home life of the rapist, who seems the ideal father and husband, is neatly undercut by his vicious secret perhaps too neatly undercut. The story doesn't quite succeed, because the situation, though it need not have seemed contrived, does seem so there is the sense that character and tone are being manipulated to some extent, so that the story is not as affecting as it might have been.
Kenneth Radu writes well but does not always resist the temptation to let his stories fall into safe, predictable shapes. If he can join to his considerable facility with language an ability to conceive and execute more original stories, he will make a fine writer