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Improvement by Joan Silber


Improvement by Joan Silber

Improvement, by Joan Silber

Improvement is a collection of interwoven short stories about the choices we make when young and the impact of those choices on our lives. The book’s main characters are Reyna, a young single mother living in Harlem, and her free-spirited aunt, Kiki, who is now in her 60s. Forty years earlier, Kiki lived in Turkey with Osman, a Turkish rug-seller who was then her husband. What Kiki and Reyna have in common are the recklessness of their youth and their exotic taste in men.

The book opens with Reyna visiting her boyfriend Boyd in prison on Rikers Island. He is serving a three month sentence for selling marijuana. Once out on probation, Boyd makes another bad call: he and his friends decide to earn fast cash by smuggling cigarettes in bulk from Virginia to New York, profiting from the tax differential. Things go well until they lose their driver and Reyna is asked to take his place. The decision she makes has consequences that change the course of many lives—including her own.

The interwoven stories focus on the ripple effect of one act across time and place. Although the main protagonists are Reyna and her aunt, Kiki, the story highlights some lesser, but equally interesting, characters. Among these are a motley trio of German antiquities smugglers Kiki meets in Turkey, and Lynnette, a woman whose dreams of opening a brow threading salon are fulfilled in a unique turn of events.

Silber’s ability to capture the lives of everyday people, with their hopes of improving their modest lots, is at its finest in this book. As the critic in Newsday writes:

The decorative carpet that graces the jacket of “Improvement” — presumably representing one that Kiki brings back from Turkey and gives to Reyna — will play a crucial role in the novel’s denouement. It can also serve as a metaphor for the work of art that Silber has created, woven from many strands whose pattern becomes evident only when it is completed. And like that carpet, it is at once intricate and gloriously simple. “Improvement” is an everyday masterpiece. *

*Tom Beer, Newsday, November 20, 2017

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