Obituary: Edith Pearlman

Leading Jewish-American writer whose stories describe the humanity of the lonely


She was part of an extraordinary generation of Jewish-American women writers born in the 1920s and 1930s, which included Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick and Susan Sontag.

Two things were striking about Edith Pearlman’s career. First, she specialised in writing short stories. As she wrote – “I like novels, essays, and biographies but most of all I like the short story: narrative at its most confiding.” Second, she only started being published in her sixties.

Born Edith Ann Grossman in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Edna née Rosen, whose parents had emigrated from Poland, and Herman Paul Grossman, a Ukrainian- born ophthalmologist, she grew up in a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood and graduated from Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she majored in English literature, and graduated in 1957.

But she was devastated by her father’s death from cancer when she was 16 and its impact would inform much of her literary work.

She married psychiatrist Chester Pearlman in 1967 and the couple lived in Brookline, a Jewish suburb of Boston, with their son Charles and daughter Jessica Ann.

Pearlman, who has died aged 86, was a prolific writer and published more than 250 works of short fiction and non-fiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies and online publications.

Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories and New Stories from the South; her non-fiction in The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian Magazine, Preservation and Ploughshares.

Her travel writing – about Budapest, Jerusalem, Paris and Tokyo — has been published in The New York Times and elsewhere.

But Pearlman is best known for her short stories. The Boston Globe called her “our greatest living American short story writer”, and The Times said, “Edith Pearlman is the best short story writer in the world. A lot of people know that. More will.”

The first of her five books of short stories, Vaquita and Other Stories, was published by a small American press in 1996, when she was 60. The 15 stories have diverse settings: Central America, Jerusalem in midsummer, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I like solitaries, oddities, charlatans and children”, she writes. “My characters are secretive; in almost every story somebody harbours a hidden love, dread, regret, or the memory of an insult awaiting revenge.”

The stories in Vaquita are very short, rarely more than 3,000 words. There’s something else about the stories. “I’m drawn to heat,” she wrote, “sweltering Central American cities; a steamy soup kitchen; Jerusalem in midsummer; the rekindled passion of an old historian; the steady fire of terminal pain.”

Above all, however, her first book set the moral tone for the stories that followed. “My characters are people in peculiar circumstances aching to Do The Right Thing if only they can figure out what The Right Thing is.

If not, they’ll at least Do Their Own Thing Right.”
Her second book, Love Among the Greats and Other Stories, was published in 2002. The characters include rabbis, toy makers, lovers, invalids, immigrants, schmoozers, angels, and fools; all of them real and accessible.

The title story begins: “At the dinner following Michal’s wedding to Bellamy they did the chair thing. It was a Jewish wedding, after all — as Jewish as a wedding could be when the bride’s mother was not Jewish and therefore the bride, strictly speaking, was not Jewish either; as Jewish as a wedding could be in a prairie college town where the one synagogue, struggling to keep solvent, rented itself out weekdays to Alcoholics Anonymous and a quilting group.”

The Jewish Advocate wrote: “She has a gift for compressing whole lifetimes into seven or eight pages.”

Her third book, How to Fall, came out in 2005. The stories are set in a small Massachusetts town. In the title story we meet Jocelyn Hoyle, a comic sidekick in an early 1950s television variety show. Like many clowns, he is miserable.

The story opens when he begins to receive mysterious letters from a fan who calls herself The Lady In Green. It ends with a poignant twist. In If Love Were All, a middle-aged woman leaves her home in Rhode Island to help refugee children in Second World War London. There she endures bombings, betrayals, and the unsettling beginnings of peace. Spanning four countries and 60 years, these 16 stories present characters dealing with love and death.

Perhaps her best book, Binocular Vision, was published in 2011. “[Her] view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments,” wrote The New York Times.

The book is a mix of new and old, 18 stories republished from her previous books and 13 new stories. Some are very Jewish: stories set in Israel, about the Holocaust and featuring suburban American Jews.

But arguably the best are not. She is most at home with stories of middle Americans, living quiet lives in suburban Massachusetts where she lived nearly all of her adult life.

The best stories are about lonely people, “isolates”, as she calls them. Some are eccentric, others are just on their own, like Nancy the quirky, rootless young bohemian in Hanging Fire, Miss Huk, the mysterious receptionist in a Hungarian hotel, a retired doctor facing a battle with cancer, Valerie Gordon, the spinster nanny who moves from family to family and Milo, the therapist to whom all the suburban families turn for advice about their children but who never really belongs in their community.

In my review for The Jewish Chronicle, I wrote, “These are all terrific characters, lonely and desperately sad and yet full of life and interest. These stories are about the humanity of the lonely and they belong with the best contemporary American short fiction.”

Her last book, Honeydew, came out in 2015. The New York Times wrote: “If Binocular Vision launched Pearlman, rightly, into the spotlight, Honeydew should cement her reputation as one of the most essential short story visionaries of our time”.

Edith Pearlman was one of the leading short-story writers of the last 25 years. Too often she and some of the other great post-war women writers wrote in the shadow of their famous male contemporaries.

In time, though, Pearlman started to receive the critical recognition she always deserved and her writing got better and better. She was nominated in 2011 for a National Book Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. She is survived by her husband, their son and daughter, a grandson and her sister, Betty Jane Grossman.

Edith Pearlman, born June 26, 1936. Died January 1, 2023

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive