The characters in Kate Milliken’s “If I’d Known You Were Coming” (University of Iowa Press, 134 pages, $17) desperately hope others can meet their needs. They seek connections — professional or personal — and are nearly always disappointed, sometimes in catastrophic ways. The short story collection garnered the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award.
In the opening story of the collection, “A Matter of Time,” a wife hopes a college friend can help her husband get an acting gig. In “Bottleneck,” a man needs reassurance from his daughter that he isn’t a terrible parent. In “Detour,” a woman seeks to reconnect with one of her mother’s old flames — the only man who seemed like a father to her. The desires of Milliken’s characters often go heartbreakingly unfulfilled.
Many of the stories are linked and a character named Caroline is the collection’s central figure. We first meet her as a child in “A Matter of Time,” in which she is put in jeopardy by her parents’ ambition and inattention. We see her with more agency but in similar straits in “The Whole World.” By the collection’s end, in “Inheritance,” she has perhaps found someone who can help her get her life on track, but may be too far gone to benefit.
Milliken doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of her tales. “Sleight of Hand,” which centers on gambling debts horrifyingly settled, may be the collection’s most disturbing entry, but all of these beautifully written stories are at the very least unsettling. Nevertheless (or perhaps because of this), I recommend book highly.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.