Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Contents Under Pressure 
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Broadkill River Press, 2016
$16.99

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

Ellen Prentiss Campbell gives us a taste of several coming-of-age conflicts in her short story collection, Contents Under Pressure. From the metamorphosis of college student to real-world-dweller in “Sea Change,” to the challenges of midlife crises and divorce in “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects,” and even dealing with the denial of life’s bookend in “Dance Lessons,” Campbell grounds us in reality, unearthing the drama in otherwise mundane facets of school, work, love, and family.

The book takes us to relatable places, but one story does so with a surprising twist. “Sea Change” is my favorite story in the collection. Campbell introduces us to Adrienne, a college student studying marine biology. She’s the kind of character many of us identify with: passionate about her major, but wishing the college struggle would lead her to something more fulfilling. We’re full of envy when Adrienne impulsively answers an ad that reads, “Seeking adventurous scientist for underwater exploration. Willingness to relocate a prerequisite.” The tale takes us down a path where Adrienne’s “underwater exploration” has another prerequisite—becoming a mermaid through medication designed for physical alteration.

With this story, Campbell plays with the idea that you should be able to become what you’re passionate about. It reminds me of my friends and me, how we grew up with big dreams and constant distress over potentially using our degrees in writing, fine art, and accounting to manage a Domino’s or push grocery carts. “Sea Change” is at once the epitome of escape from the real world and the ideal post-college destination.

It’s also the only story in the book that takes a science-fiction route to makes its point. Among a series of ordinary narratives which feel drawn from life experiences, it’s surprising how well Campbell performs with more fantastic subject matter. It reminds me of a Vonnegut adventure; it’s moored by concrete issues, but fearlessly wanders into strange territory to achieve a swimmingly impactful metaphor.

Other standouts are the stories that feature previously established characters. “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects” are adjacent in the book, and each follow Meg and her husband, Walker, an older couple who continuously experience the vicissitudes of marriage, teetering on the prospect of divorce.

Campbell’s strength is developing characters over time, which she proves with these two stories. Her ability of splicing together marriage conflicts in a chapter-like design displays endurance with the drama. Specifically, she shows us an uncertain couple trying to regain a sense of youth. They dress up like JFK and Jackie for a Halloween party, where an authentic fortune-telling gypsy warns them that “something is going to happen,” and to “be ready.” In “Entangled Objects,” the uncertainty is prolonged in their home, where the reader is allowed to feel Meg and Walker’s seniority through thoughts of their grown-up children and refusing to forget old affairs.

The book opens with “Depth Perception,” a story that attempts to criticize psychology and adoptive parenting, which Campbell is able to do by the end of the story, albeit with sacrifices to flow and character development. This story emphasizes Campbell’s difficulty with developing characters within the frame of a short story, showcasing a big plot with contrived players.

Despite the issues with the title story, this collection also contains gems like “Bicycle Lessons.” Here, Campbell accomplishes the great feat of manifesting the mind of a child; she acknowledges when something in Lydia’s small world is out of place, but retains the ignorance that keeps her from fully comprehending the reality of a situation. Campbell intentionally withholds information, never explicitly telling us the reason for Lydia’s father’s spotty home presence, aside from the fact that he stays at someplace referred to as the “Lodge.” By the end, there’s a strong implication of her father dealing with depression, accompanied by the metaphor of “learning to ride” that holds up the whole story:

I mounted the bicycle and rode fast toward the Lodge, as though I would be in time to see him, as he stood on the fire escape, stretching up on his toes, preparing to dive, preparing to fly. As though, if I hurried, I could catch him as he fell.

It’s a story that lets your nose leave the page only to sigh and contemplate its binding, final words.

Contents Under Pressure shows us Campbell’s ability to frame poignancy, especially when she takes the time to carefully recollect life’s steepest humps and unfold her characters across stories. While it’s not a perfect book, it’s a successful kicking-off point for establishing her potential in the fiction realm.