Peter Orner explores the impact of life's essential moments, those brief but far-reaching occasions that haunt his characters. The discovery of a crime, a theatrical performance in a small town, or the recollection of a cruel wartime decision are equally affecting in Orner's vivid scenarios. Esther Stories is divided into four distinct parts, each with its own momentum. The first half of the book concerns the lives of unrelated strangers, and the second introduces two Jewish families, one on the East Coast, the other in the Midwest. These stories cover considerable geographic ground -- from Nova Scotia to Mississippi, from Fall River, Massachusetts, to Chicago -- but the real territory is emotional. As the narrator of the title story tries to piece together his late aunt Esther's life from the fragments of stories told about her, he remembers what she told him in a dark kitchen when he was a child: "You pay for everything. When you think you're getting something for free -- remember this-- you'll pay later." All thirty-two wide-ranging pieces -- funny or sorrowful, urban or rural, simple or innovative -- are welcome additions to the art of the story.