This, author signed, collection of short stories was a Christmas present from my husband. Americans, in my view, are the best short story writers in the world and it was wonderful to plunge into these short snapshots of contemporary life by one of my favourite novelists. If you haven’t come across Prep, The American Wife and Eligible, you’re in for a treat.
At this stage in my pregnancy (8+ months), short stories are a gift. Reading a story at night, when I’m really tired, feels like a real achievement – and doesn’t leave me as anxious as only getting through a few hundred pages of a novel that, in all likelihood, might not be finished for a while: newborns are beautiful black holes of time and energy.
These stories are about sexual politics, motherhood and unlikely, transformative encounters. Each story is unsettling, in the way that good short stories should be.
Curtis Sittenfeld has a sharp eye and a satirical style not dissimilar to Jane Austen: she exposes our weaknesses; our foibles; our eccentricities; our deceptions (of ourselves and others). She gets into the gap between our public and private selves; she exposes the loneliness at the heart of human life in a way that is often painful to read. And she dissects the betrays, both small and large, that leave us and those we love wounded. She does what it says in on the tin (and in the title short story): she says what we’re thinking, even when it’s embarrassing and painful.
As well as tackling sexual politics she also tackles politics: the stories which bookend her collection, Gender Studies and Do-Over both explicitly mention the 2016 election and the advent of American’s most controversial president to date, Donald Trump. Sittenfeld weaves the consequence of this election into the lives of her characters in a way that shows that involvement in politics is no longer optional: it touches us all. I love the humour and frankness with which she exposes the absurdity of the election at the beginning of Do-Over:
Clay never seriously considered the possibility that Donald Trump would win the election, and around nine p.m. central time, when it seems likely he will, Clay texts his daughter, Abby, who is fourteen and at her mother’s house. He writers, ‘I hope you are not too disappointed. Progress sometimes happens in fits and starts. I love you, Abs.’ Abs texts back, ‘He’s gross,’ followed by the poop emoji.
The protagonist has a meeting with a girl he knew from high-school: he was the class president and she was his assistant, even though it was clear that she was more popular and no doubt had more votes. Clay never questioned it, not until now. Sittenfeld shows how Donald Trump has somehow woken us up to sexism – a good thing, perhaps, though it doesn’t excuse us from being sexist in the first place:
Out of curiosity, before our country decided to elect an unhinged narcissist over an intelligent, experienced, qualified woman – before that, had it really never occurred to you that the senior prefect thing was sexist?
I love writers who shed light on modern life and the human condition: Sittenfeld is brilliant at this. My only criticism would be that her stories sometimes lack warmth, something that I often see in brilliant, clever writing. It is hard, after all, to be witty, sharp – and moving. I’ve often seen this as a British trait: that to show warmth, that to be moved or to move others, is somehow a form of intellectual weakness. I would have liked to see Sittenfeld address the heart a little more – it would have made her stories stronger.
That said, there was one story which did move me, partly because it mirrors my stage of life but also because it reveals how fragile our public facades are and how quick we are to judge the public facades of others. In Bad Latch, a young mother has four key encounters with a another mother (prenatal yoga; breastfeeding class; swim lessons and the first day at daycare). Through these key encounters, she goes on a journey of discovering her own, unexpected self as a mother and she also begins to dismantle the initial judgement she made of Gretchen, the mother she first observed in the prenatal yoga class. At first, Gretchen comes across as a smug, wealthy, sanctimonious know it all who lords it over the other women in the prenatal yoga group. But then, of course, motherhood – true motherhood – strikes. A state that humbles us; that makes us more human; that breaks us apart. Through this journey, a friendship forms between the two women – a friendship that would never have happened had both women not gone through the disassembling of the self that motherhood brings.
In all, You Think It, I’ll Say It is a wonderful collection of timely stories, sharply observed and brilliantly written. A little more warmth and heart would have made them close to perfect, but they’re a fantastic read, nonetheless.