Edith Pearlman, Writer Who Won Acclaim Late in Life, Dies at 86
Edith Pearlman, whose acclaimed 2011 collection of short stories, “Binocular Vision,” lifted her out of relative publishing obscurity to make her an instant if belated literary star at the age of 74, died on Sunday at her home in Brookline, Mass. She was 86.
Her son, Charles, confirmed the death, but did not cite a specific cause.
“Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman?” the novelist Roxana Robinson asked in a rave review of “Binocular Vision” on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The answer was a rare Cinderella story in publishing, centering on a septuagenarian writer and a young editor of ambition and vision.
Ms. Pearlman refined her craft over four decades, publishing more than 200 short stories — and winning prizes and positive reviews — but mostly in the hothouse world of small literary magazines and presses that proudly eschew market-driven mainstream publishing.
In 2011, Ben George, then an up-and-coming editor with the literary magazine Tin House, was starting a new press, Lookout Books, with Emily Louise Smith, an independent publisher based at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Impressed with Ms. Pearlman’s earlier books of short stories — “Vaquita” (1996), “Love Among the Greats” (2002) and “How to Fall” (2005) — he asked her if he could publish a collection of her selected and new stories to inaugurate Lookout Books. Ms. Pearlman said that he was her ideal reader and worked closely with him to produce “Binocular Vision.”
Each story was chosen to show Ms. Pearlman’s range as she brought the reader into the private worlds of characters as disparate as suburban mothers and Holocaust survivors. The characters tend to have dark secrets and sharp wits, and their lives are transformed from the ordinary to the unexpected in a moment.
In “Vaquita,” Señora Perera, the minister of health in an unnamed Latin American country, is holding a meeting when it is interrupted by gunfire. She calmly tells her deputy to take care of her parrot, as she expects to be deported or killed. Asked why she chose a parrot for a pet, and a dull one at that, with brown feathers, she replies, “I was attracted by his clever rabbinic stare.”
Mr. George was thrilled with the collection and hoped to attract even more attention to it by asking the best-selling novelist Ann Patchett, who had selected one of Ms. Pearlman’s pieces for the 2006 “Best American Short Stories” anthology, to write an introduction. He feared that she would turn him down because Lookout Books couldn’t pay much. But Ms. Patchett was eager to promote Ms. Pearlman’s work and, by his account, told Mr. George, “I would pay for the privilege.”
What happened next, Mr. George said in an interview for this obituary in 2021, was a literary event that he saw as almost magical.
In her introduction, Ms. Patchett compared Ms. Pearlman to such short story masters as John Updike, Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro. And the larger literary world took notice.
“Pearlman’s prose is smooth and poetic, and her world seems safe and engaging,” Ms. Robinson wrote in her Times review. “So it’s arresting when, suddenly, almost imperceptibly, she slips emotion into the narrative, coloring it unexpectedly with deep or delicate hues.”
The Financial Times called her a literary “It Girl.”
Ms. Pearlman was nominated in 2011 for a National Book Award, and prizes followed, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Malamud Award for excellence in the short story.
As for Mr. George, publishing Ms. Pearlman brought him considerable attention as well. He went on to become a senior editor at Little Brown. Without her, he said, “I would never have come to New York.”
Edith Ann Grossman was born on June 26, 1936, in Providence, R.I., where she grew up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood. She attended Radcliffe College, where she majored in English literature, and graduated in 1957. Her mother, Edna (Rosen) Grossman, whose parents had immigrated from Poland, was born in Providence and was a homemaker. Her father, Herman Paul Grossman, who was born in Ukraine and came to the United States with his family in 1908, was an ophthalmologist.
Her father came down with cancer in 1945, when Edith was 9, and he died when she was 16, a devastating loss and formative experience: Many of her stories turn on the death or illness of a parent.
“Edith has always known that death is the essential human story,” Ms. Patchett told The New York Times in a profile of Ms. Pearlman in 2015. “It’s not about falling in love. It’s not about travel and expectation. The difference between her and the rest of us is that she has always had this electricity, this capacity to draw beauty from loss.”
Ms. Grossman, as she was known then, became a computer programmer after college and married Chester Pearlman, a psychiatrist, in 1967.
In addition to her husband and her son, Charles, she is survived by a daughter, Jessica Ann Pearlman, a grandson and her sister, Betty Jane Grossman.
She raised her family in the Boston suburb of Brookline, which became the model for her fictional town of Godolphin, Mass. When her children were at school, she went to her typewriter in the basement and drew back the veil on small-town life in stories that seemingly compressed an entire novel into fewer than 10 pages, often with recurring characters.
Many of Ms. Pearlman’s stories were inspired by her close-knit family (her grandfather was a rabbi), and its irreverent sense of humor. In one story, “Chance,” the rabbi and cantor of the local synagogue come to a congregant’s house to play poker under the guise of a weekly Torah study group. The young girl in the family peeks over their shoulders to see who is bluffing.
“Whatever I know about poker,” the narrator writes, “I learned from watching the Torah study group.”
In the title story of “Binocular Vision,” a girl spies on a couple next door. When the man’s suicide is reported in the paper, the girl is surprised to learn that the woman he was living with was his mother. “I thought she was his wife,” the girl says. “So did she,” the girl’s mother replies.
As the critic James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, Ms. Pearlman was so attuned to the ways people observe one another that she seemed to be “one of God’s spies.”
Ms. Pearlman wrote another collection, “Honeydew,” also edited by Mr. George. It was published in 2014, when she was 78, by Little Brown, her first book with a major publisher, and it earned her a second National Book Award nomination. It was her final book; by then,cancer treatments had left her too weak to write.
These stories “excel at capturing the complex and surprising turns in seemingly ordinary lives,” Laura Van Den Berg wrote in The New York Times Book Review.
“If ‘Binocular Vision’ launched Pearlman, rightly, into the spotlight,” Ms. Van Den Berg added, “‘Honeydew’ should cement her reputation as one of the most essential short story visionaries of our time.”
Jack Kadden contributed reporting.