Love Across Time and Space

Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter (Ecco, $27.99) begins with a familiar challenge, especially for city-dwelling parents: lack of space. Annie, Edward, and their baby daughter, Rose, live in an unnamed metropolis. Their small, cramped apartment looks out onto an airshaft. It boasts one overstuffed closet, which they’ve dubbed “Closet Mystery” for the vast array of belongings that might tumble out upon opening it. Annie quietly questions the couple’s decision to live in such an overcrowded, unaffordable place, longing for “a bit of outdoors all their own.”

As a Manhattan mom, I found myself nodding in agreement as I surveyed the scene of my own apartment: the piles of stuff in every corner, closets packed to the gills, walls that seem too narrow to contain our ever-expanding lives. And yet, what happens next in Leichter’s wildly inventive sophomore novel is anything but familiar. When Edward tells Annie that the apartment would “grow on her,” she asks, “You mean it might literally grow?”

In Leichter’s fictional universe, the answer is yes.

A playfulness—with plot and with language— that illuminates the absurdities of contemporary life.

The first part of the novel follows this small family as they discover a magical terrace hidden inside their closet. Strangely, the terrace only materializes when Annie’s co-worker Stephanie comes to visit. At first, Annie and Edward can’t believe their luck, but the story turns sinister when Stephanie abruptly locks Annie out of the terrace—separating her from her husband and daughter. In the following three sections, we meet Annie’s parents, Lydia and George, as a young couple; we learn the consequences of Stephanie’s ability to expand space; and finally, we see an adult Rose, navigating love and loss. Leichter creates a cast of characters whose lives intersect—and whose personal tragedies, wants, and missteps have implications for everyone involved.

As in her acclaimed debut novel Temporary, Leichter displays a playfulness—with plot and with language—that illuminates the absurdities of contemporary life. On every page of Terrace Story, Leichter’s storytelling delights and her prose sparkles. At 190 pages, the novel is compact, yet the author’s imagination seems limitless. So does her capacity to ask profound questions about the nature of space and time. At the most basic level, there is the notion of real estate—and how much square footage we need to be happy. But Leichter’s characters grapple with both physical and emotional distances. As Lydia’s marriage begins to unravel, she observes, “Their home was too big when they desired each other and too small when they were fighting. It was never the right size.” Similarly, during a tense moment on the terrace, Annie describes herself and Edward “standing only steps apart, the queasy sensation of extra distance tucked between the inches.” Space expands and shrinks to match the characters’ moods and their feelings toward one another.

With her supernatural power to create space, Stephanie is the embodiment of this idea. She raises ceilings, extends sidewalks, and deepens shower stalls because of “a craving, a longing, so deep inside her that it was outside her body.” Overcome with affection when she visits Annie and Edward, she makes the terrace appear as “a place to put everything [her heart] could not hold…an alcove to save her happiness for later.” In Stephanie, Leichter portrays a woman whose loneliness and need for connection are so strong, she cannot contain them. Space, then, becomes a manifestation of love, desire, and grief.

The narrative veers into the dystopian. In the parallel world Stephanie wills into existence, seasons no longer exist. Birds and animals go extinct. And even a family is “an ecosystem that sometimes goes extinct too.” Yet, Leichter’s sense of humor shines through. There’s Stephanie’s scene-stealing suitemate Doris, whose popular memoir begins, “It was the fucking worst of times.” There’s George looking on the bright side after his colleague’s funeral: “Where there’s death, there’s bagels.”

In the end, the reader may question what is real and what is invented. But like the people who inhabit this surreal story, we come to realize the truth is overrated. After listening to Annie and Edward share memories of events that never occurred, Stephanie muses, “It was love, to recognize the inventions and inconsistencies that make a person whole.” Indeed, our imag- inings and retellings reveal more about who we are than the facts. It’s what we hold in our minds that allows love to endure across time, space, and even galaxies.

In Terrace Story, the expansiveness of Leichter’s imagination reveals a dazzling range of possibilities. In matters of the heart. In fiction, too. And we, as readers, can be grateful for her magical ability to expand the boundaries of the known world and show us unexplored terrain that would not have existed without her.

Kate Schmier is a writer and editor from Detroit and lives in New York City. Her work has appeared in Lilith, Paper Brigade, CNN, NPR , and elsewhere.