Often, short story collections can be a bit of a mixed bag – especially when all written by the same author. I frequently find myself speed-reading through “filler” in hopes of finding some “killer”. As always, Lauren Groff turns your expectations to crystal and smashes them into a million brittle and beautiful pieces. Each one of the eight stories collected in this book could be their own novels- I could spend days drifting through Groff’s worlds.
The first tale, “Lucky Chow Fun”, takes place in the fictional version of Cooperstown, NY: Templeton. Templeton will sound familiar to fans of Groff’s debut, the maddeningly good Monsters of Templeton. One doesn’t need to read the latter to enjoy to former, but for me? It was a treat! The walls of the small town close in on our high school narrator, while the larger world breaks the idyllic village bubble through the girls who work at the Lucky Chow Fun restaurant.
“L. Debard and Aliette” was a fast favorite for me; it’s an achingly gorgeous tale of impossible and improbable love between a down-on-his-luck poet and former Olympian and the polio-afflicted teen to whom he gives swimming lessons. The story takes place mostly in 1918, and the Spanish Flu is creeping across the continent and the Great War is waging across the world. The pandemic imagery made my pulse race; while written before our current COVID times, the actions of the characters and world within was alarmingly and appallingly similar to the darker days of our current struggle. This piece is also a reworking of the timeless story of Abelard and Héloïse.
“Majorette” feels like an early Kate Atkinson work, and that is not a complaint! A marriage in 1950s Hershey, PA grows, cracks, and expands again through the eyes of the couple’s first child. From babyhood through becoming a grandmother herself we follow the small lives of her family and the bigger life that she attempts to steal for herself from the trappings of the failure of the midcentury “American Dream”. Basset hounds, smoking indoors, twirling flaming batons, and the breeze of the Hershey Chocolate Factory surround and shape our Majorette Heroine.
My least favorite of the bunch, “Blythe”, is about a young mother who rejoins public life to attend a poetry workshop at a local college. She becomes immediately entangled and enraptured in Blythe, a fabulously glamourous but immediately and apparently unwell mother who also joins the course. Blythe herself is dreadful, and we watch her rise, fall, and fall some more through the eyes of our potential poet. This is a “toxic friend” story, and after the latest Sally Rooney I am just burnt out.
“The Wife of the Dictator” feels like a classic Greek Chorus; a gaggle of nameless ladies wilt and gossip in the heat of an unnamed Latin American regime. They drink, dance, and fan themselves while their husbands work for “the company” and their children run wild on manicured lawns within the compounds of jungle palaces. Their attention is piqued by the titular new wife of The Dictator; she’s a mysterious Mary Todd Lincoln type who is out of her comfort zone and out of their picture of what a wife to The Dictator should be. Danger creeps further and further into this impossible idyll, and the gaggle of ladies observe it all but bear none of the expense; they continue to gossip and to exclude as their stolen world crumbles from beneath.
A fabulous older woman takes us on a journey from her first honeymoon through her third husband in “Sir Fleeting”. How does a midwestern farm girl become the talk of high society? Mostly through near misses with an extravagantly foppish playboy. Time is cruel to those who deserve it!
“Watershed” is slight, spooky, and heartbreaking. No notes.
The story from the bunch that begs the most for a 5-Part adaptation on premium cable is “Fugue”; a tale of a teenager working for an odd couple at a mostly closed down hotel in an old village over a sulfur spring. I can give no more details without giving away a real stinger of a story.
“Delicate Edible Birds”, the titular tale, is of course the knock-out of the bunch. If almost every story here is a 5/5, then this piece is a six. Paris is falling to the Nazis, and a Jeep full of reporters does their best to escape the city. One woman in the group has the power to potentially save them all, but at great cost. The remaining travelers, all men, wield power over her but have no control over the greater situation. It is about as brutal as you would expect given the circumstances.
While there are no “magical” elements within any of these stories, I still feel that Groff’s creations take space in a world of magical realism; their is a hint of the divine and the all-knowing around every corner.