Edith Pearlman Dies At 86, Writer Who Won Acclaim Late In Life!
At 74, Edith Pearlman became an overnight literary star after publishing the critically acclaimed short story collection “Binocular Vision” in 2011. She passed away on Sunday at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was 86.
Charles, her son, acknowledged the passing but did not explain.
In a glowing review of “Binocular Vision” that appeared on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, author Roxana Robinson questioned, “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman?” The solution was a novel Cinderella tale about a septuagenarian author and a youthful editor with drive and vision.
Over four decades, Ms. Pearlman honed her art, publishing more than 200 short stories and earning accolades and awards, but primarily in the hotbed of small literary magazines and presses that boldly reject market-driven mainstream publication.
In 2011, Emily Louise Smith, an independent publisher at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Ben George, a rising editor at the literary journal Tin House, launched a new imprint, Lookout Books.
He asked Ms. Pearlman if he could publish a collection of her chosen and new pieces to launch Lookout Books after being impressed by her past collections of short stories, “Vaquita” (1996), “Love Among the Greats” (2002), and “How to Fall” (2005). Ms. Pearlman described him as her ideal reader, and they collaborated closely to write “Binocular Vision.”
Each tale was picked to highlight Ms. Pearlman’s diversity by allowing the reader into the private lives of people as different as suburban mothers and Holocaust survivors. The people frequently have sinister secrets and razor-sharp minds, and their lives quickly go from routine to the unexpected.
In “Vaquita,” Seora Perera, the health minister of an unspecified Latin American nation, is in the middle of a discussion when gunshots break out. She calmly instructs her deputy to take care of her parrot because she fully anticipates being killed or deported. When asked why she chose a dull, brown-feathered parrot as a pet, she responds, “His intelligent rabbinic stare drew me.”
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The best-selling author Ann Patchett, who had chosen one of Ms. Pearlman’s works for the 2006 “Best American Short Stories” anthology, was asked by Mr. George to write an introduction to draw even more attention to the collection. Because Lookout Books couldn’t afford to pay much, he worried she would reject him. However, according to Mr. George’s account, Ms. Patchett said, “I would pay for the opportunity” to promote Ms. Pearlman’s work.
In an interview for this obituary conducted in 2021, Mr. George described an academic development that he perceived as nearly magical.
Ms. Patchett compared Ms. Pearlman to writers of short stories like John Updike, Anton Chekhov, and Alice Munro in her introduction. And the rest of the literary community took notice.
Edith Pearlman was one of the greatest short story writers ever. https://t.co/pdxkL7wpdV
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) January 2, 2023
Pearlman’s universe appears comfortable and exciting, and her prose is elegant and beautiful, according to Ms. Robinson’s Times assessment. Therefore, it is arresting when she abruptly and almost silently introduces emotion into the story, adding unexpectedly tender or profound tones.
She has been dubbed a literary “It Girl” by The Financial Times.
After receiving accolades such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Malamud Award for excellence in the short story, Ms. Pearlman was nominated for a National Book Award in 2011.
Publishing Ms. Pearlman garnered Mr. George a lot of attention as well. Later, he rose to the position of senior editor at Little Brown. He claimed, “I would never have come to New York without her.”
Born on June 26, 1936, in Providence, Rhode Island, Edith Ann Grossman grew up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood. She graduated in 1957 from Radcliffe College with a degree in English literature. Her mother, Edna (Rosen), Grossman, was a homemaker born in Providence whose parents had moved from Poland. Herman Paul Grossman, her father, was an ophthalmologist. He was born in Ukraine and immigrated to the US in 1908.
Many of Edith’s stories center on the death or illness of a parent. When Edith was nine years old, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away when she was sixteen.
In a 2015 feature of Ms. Pearlman, Ms. Patchett said, “Edith has always realized that death is the core human story.” The issue is not falling in love. Expectations and travel are not relevant. She has always had this spark, this ability to find beauty in tragedy, which sets her apart from the rest of us.
After graduating from college, Ms. Grossman—as she was then known—became a computer programmer and web Chester Pearlman, a psychiatrist, in 1967.
She is survived by a daughter, Jessica Ann Pearlman, a grandchild, and her sister, Betty Jane Grossman, in addition to her husband and her son, Charles.
She brought up her family in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, which inspired her made-up town of Godolphin, Massachusetts. She wrote stories about small-town life on her basement typewriter while her kids were at school, typically featuring recurrent characters and appearing to condense an entire novel into less than ten pages.
Her close-knit family’s irreverent sense of humor (her grandfather was a rabbi) served as the basis for many of Ms. Pearlman’s writings. In one tale, “Chance,” the local synagogue’s rabbi and cantor visit a member of the congregation’s home to play poker while posing as a weekly Torah study group. The family’s young girl glances over their shoulders to see who is playing a ruse.
The narrator claims she acquired everything she knows about poker from watching the Torah study group.
In the title tale of the collection “Binocular Vision,” a girl observes the neighbors. The girl is shocked to hear that the lady the man was living with was his mother when the man’s suicide is mentioned in the newspaper. The girl claims, “I believed she was his wife. The mother of the girl responds, “So did she.”
Ms. Pearlman appeared to be “one of God’s spies” because of how well-versed how individuals monitor one another, according to critic James Wood in The New Yorker.
Another collection by Ms. Pearlman, titled “Honeydew,” was also edited by Mr. George. Her first book with a big publisher was released in 2014 when she was 78 and received a second National Book Award nomination. It was her final book because she could not write due to cancer treatments.
Laura Van Den Berg of The New York Times Book Review says these tales “excel in capturing the nuanced and unexpected turns in seemingly regular lives.”
Ms. Van Den Berg continued, “If ‘Binocular Vision’ rightfully thrust Pearlman into the spotlight, ‘Honeydew’ should firmly establish her status as one of the most important short story visionaries of our time.”