Secret Games of Words
Karen Stefano
, The Secret Game of Words
Publisher: 1glimpsepress
2015, 126 pages, paperback, $15

KAREN STEFANO’S DEBUT short story collection, The Secret Game of Words, is incredibly smart, funny, and poignant at the same time. The title story, “The Secret Games of Words,” is written in the format of an email from a woman to her ex-husband. In the email, she recalls their twenty years of marriage, and how it comes to an end. It is a heartbreaking story, but Stefano manages to throw in humor here and there. For example, during the narrator and her husband’s marriage counseling session, when the therapist asks the husband to say something he likes about his wife, after a long silence, the husband says, “She’s a really good cook.” This line is both hilarious and sad. It is ironic that after twenty years of marriage, the husband is no longer able to find one meaningful thing to say about his wife. Instead, he’s only able to make a comment on her cooking.

I loved reading Stefano’s sharp observation on marriage and relationship in “The Secret Games of Words.” Toward the end of the story, she writes:

Getting married means putting all your eggs in one basket, putting your chips down on one number, betting it all and standing back to hope for the best. No one tells you that most of married life consists of the boring stuff, sheer drudgery peppered by a few solid tragedies that make you wax nostalgic for the dull days. You stand scratching your head realizing that Endless Love has become Loveless End, and anagram of your vows, and you look at your life feeling something akin to buyer’s remorse. You start out wanting to be saved by love and in the end just hope you can survive it.

While reading this passage, I felt I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with Stefano about life and love. Endless Love becomes Loveless End. I loved how the wordplay here captures the truth of a failed marriage.

Besides the title story, wordplay also appears in several other stories in the collection. In the story “All the Bad Things Start with V,” when the narrator finds out that her husband is having an affair, in her conversation with her friend, she lists words that are “bad” and start with V: victim, vile, vermin, viper, venereal, vitiate, and vows. “Vow” is not typically a “bad” word. Stefano artfully uses the contrast between “vow” and the other V-words to show the pain and agony the narrator is going through.

Even though romantic relationships are at the forefront of the story collection, Stefano does not stop there. She explores a wide range of subject matters in these stories, such as single fathers, dying mothers, and children growing up in tough neighborhoods. My favorite story in this collection is “Mystery Date,” which is a coming of age story about two girls growing up in 1970s California. Mystery Date is a board game that the narrator played when she was a little girl. While playing the game and fantasizing what the future had in store for her, she realized that like the board game, maybe life wouldn’t be that widely open for her after all. Choices will be limited—“You are offered a small assortment of realities and it is from these that you must choose.” At the end of the story, Stefano writes:

Mary and I, bodies throbbing with want, couldn’t possibly have known that those girls who were us would disappear forever. We couldn’t know then how much we would lose in our lives, that we would make new plans, adjust our dreams to fit the passage of time and what it had left us. We couldn’t possibly have known how short time is, how it never comes back.

These lines struck me like a beautiful, melancholy song, and I couldn’t help rereading them several times, thinking of my own girlhood and the years that have gone by and will never come back. This is what I feel Stefano has achieved most in this story collection. Through these nostalgic, heartfelt stories, Stefano not only takes the reader on an emotional trip, but also challenges them to ponder upon their own lives.

Lili Xie

Karen Stefano is the author of The Secret Games of Words, published by 1GlimpsePress. She is Fiction Editor for Connotation Press. Her stories have appeared in The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. Karen was nominated for the XXXVIII Pushcart Prize. She lives in Southern California and is currently at work on a novel. Karen is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. She received her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from the University of California, Davis, and an M.B.A. with an emphasis in corporate finance from the University of San Diego.