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A Soul-Satisfying Alternative: Review of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling

Brenna Lemieux

Cover of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling

Reviewed: Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)

What’s the proper literary form to capture the anecdote? Beth Ann Fennelly’s newest collection, Heating & Cooling, makes the case that it is the micro-memoir—that is, the personal essay that ranges from a single line to about six pages. If the full-length memoir is akin to the studio portrait, this collection, which contains 52 literary anecdotes, offers something like a handful of skillfully rendered charcoal sketches.

There’s a lot to love here, but one of my favorite things is that Heating & Cooling is a kind of Trojan horse of poetry; the “micro-memoir” form, it turns out, has plenty of room for prose poems. If there’s a reader in your life who is skeptical about poetry, this collection might be the gateway drug they need.

Though perhaps “gateway drug” isn’t fair; what’s in these pages is heavy stuff. Fennelly’s lilting narratives usher the reader along smoothly, then punch like poems in their last words: you never see the turns coming but are walloped by them again and again. That’s what struck me most about Heating & Cooling, in fact: Fennelly makes this form look easy. She deftly weaves summary and scene (as in “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79”), zooming in and out to offer just enough that we get the essence of the story and feel its emotional resonance. These pieces feel conversational, as if you’re sitting across from a friend drinking coffee—but as it turns out, the friend is a wildly talented storyteller who knows exactly which details to include and when for maximum impact (see “Bad Break”).

The collection jumps in time and subject matter, but the first-person narrator is consistent throughout: charmingly flawed and self-aware (“Their avarice was so unabashed that it was difficult to keep despising them, but I, large of righteousness and small of diamond, persevered all the way to Denver”), funny (see “Your Turn” and the “Married Love” series), and able to capture complex human relationships in just a few striking lines (“I didn’t want to suffer because the last time I saw my father, I didn’t tell him I loved him. I could hear my own future voice, If only I’d told him I loved him. I wanted to spare my future me, whom I did love. So I told him I loved him and I left”). Someone, in other words, with whom you’d happily spend more time than the 100-some pages of this book.

While Fennelly’s skill is magnificent throughout, I had favorites and less-than-favorites—but I think every reader will. Part of the fun of the collection is discovering those that resonate most. And because the book is small and light—easily carried in a pocket or purse—you can do that, piece by piece, waiting in lines or for lights to change—a soul-satisfying alternative to scrolling through Twitter. It’s a charming way to discover a book, and one of the many gifts Heating & Cooling offers its readers.

Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Brenna Lemieux has been lucky enough to live and write in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Paris, and Galway. She has published two poetry collections and a handful of short stories. She currently lives in Chicago, where she's at work on a novel.