When people think back on the story of their lives, the “main characters” are typically family members, friends, lovers, children, co-workers and the myriad other people who receive Christmas cards or occasional texts. However, a large portion of our time as human beings consists of interactions with strangers. In Strangers I Have Known by Melissa Kotler Schwartz, the author takes readers on a journey through her everyday life, not depicting the time spent with family and friends, but rather her tiny interactions with cashiers, locals, passers-by and one-conversation friends that act as the glue tying all of humanity together.
This is a heartfelt account, composed of a few dozen vignettes from the author’s personal experience, of people and strangers she has known, friends that she has made, and the true power of connection and communication. Unlike a novel with a fluid plot, or even a collection of short stories, which tend to reveal an artist’s intended meaning, this is a very raw telling, as though it were written mere minutes after many of these meetings. Schwartz has a powerful ability to capture the soul of a person in less than three pages, and her succinct stories, without ever inserting too much explanation or reflection, are often quite profound.
In the vignette entitled “Complete Complimentary Strangers,” Schwartz tells three short tales of random compliments she received from strangers, all easily forgettable events that most people probably don’t think about very often, yet they may be some of the most pleasantly unexpected moments of a day. That is the theme of many stories in this collection – the value of seemingly meaningless moments that are so easy to overlook. The author argues that when people step out of their self-obsessed worlds, they can be enriched by the kindness of strangers, as well as the painful insights they can often provide.
This is not an overly sweet or saccharine book; at times it is even gritty and heartbreaking, but that is the arc of life, and the author isn’t afraid to admit the truth. When one peers into the lives of strangers, they should bring in no preconceptions, only a willingness to accept truth and share their own story. That is where Melissa Schwartz shines; she is not afraid to occasionally write in a banal way in order to point out the beauty of simplicity. It is a rare skill in an author: the self-confidence to underwrite a potentially beautiful scene by stripping it down to the bare bones of human connection.
The writing is inspiring, yet terse, lacking in flowery adornment, which manages to provide intimacy, but also objective authority. Schwartz doesn’t push her own ideas or personality too strongly; the stories speak very much for themselves. Granted, readers may never know how many of these stories are recounted with exact honesty to the original moments, but the overarching feeling that one gets after reading this collection is one of uplifting honesty. For that, the author should be celebrated, and that is also the reason why Stranger I Have Known should not simply be purchased and read once. Its simple wisdoms have an inherent and timeless value, and make it a five-star read.