The Usual Mistakes is a collection of twelve short stories; the first anthology from Erin Flanagan. Flanagan is no novice, having published numerous stories in various literary journals since The stories concern recognizable people in recognizable situations, albeit that Flanagan gives these situations a twist that provides a new perspective.
Not all the characters behave honorably in their struggles with relationships, intergenerational conflict, and questions of honesty and fidelity, and the circumstances dished up by fate.
Flanagan shows us people in ordinary domestic life, at work, and in social situations where self-mage and reality collide. As the title suggests they make the usual mistakes. At her best, Flanagan portrays her characters with insight and delicacy, and her stories are uncomplicated devices for reflecting dilemmas we have all witnessed, if not experienced.
The stories don't all succeed but the overall result is highly satisfactory. For me, the standout story is Intervention.
As in many of these stories the narrative focuses on a young couple not yet fully established in their extended family. Harry and Kate get a phone call from Harry's mother, Judith.
Judith announces that she is to arrange another 'intervention', a meeting of family and friends to confront her husband Gerald with his drinking. Each is forced to make decisions and commitments.
The women are better at it than the men, and even if Gerald's willful naivety is a little irritating, it's recognizable, especially in people with drinking problems. There is no pat solution to this complexity which ends with Judith and Kate forming a bond forged by acceptance of their limited ability to change the men in their lives, Kate telling Judith "He just loves that you try so damn hard Flanagan is skilful in running secondary themes alongside the main plot of her stories.
In Circus Berzerk a young couple, Ned and Jane, have bought a house, but the owner, whose wife died in the house, can't let go of it. He cruises by, parks outside, but refuses invitations to talk to the new owners.
Even although we know little about him, he's a compelling figure, but he's not the main story. Neither is the Feng Shui consultant, or the friend who deceives his pregnant wife. The real story is a dissolving relationship, and it takes a trip to the circus to provide the right metaphor for it. Jane thinks of the years of practice that go into sustaining an illusion, and by the end she "know[s] for certain there is nowhere for us to go.
Convicts can make for strong characters, and Flanagan has a good one in Manny, released from prison following a stretch for manslaughter. Any Ordinary Uncle weaves together the lives of the dangerous but reflective Manny with that of his twelve year old nephew Jeffrey, whose observations Disturbingly honest online dating confessions of a shopaholic the story. Manny gets a shot at redemption, and Jeffrey learns something about the adult world. A strength this story is Flanagan's use of diverse plot elements.
The whole drama is played out over a short time in more or less a single location, but Flanagan exploits the small town and home setting to show us the characters in a variety of situations, evoking a range of sentiments that give them depth and color.