You Think It, I’ll Say It
by Curtis Sittenfeld
reviewed by Jackie Thomas-Kennedy
In “The Prairie Wife,” one of the standout stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, Kirsten considers her wife with envy: “Oh, to be Casey! … To be a person who isn’t frittering away her life having vengeful thoughts about people from her past!” Such frittering gives the best of these stories their humor, empathy, and intelligence, as Kirsten (and others) grapple with biting insecurity. Well into their adult lives—marriages, parenthood, divorces, careers—most of Sittenfeld’s characters dwell on their social status in high school. Though this is Sittenfeld’s first collection of short stories, it’s her sixth book; the prose is polished, witty, and confident. The stories, with only a few exceptions, are structured around deliciously tense encounters fueled by a particular immediacy: here are opportunities to act as a fully realized adult. Luckily for Sittenfeld’s readers, these opportunities are rarely seized; instead, there are frequent and spectacular failures.
The closing story in this collection, “Do-Over,” relies on a senior-year conflict that resurfaces when the alumnae are middle-aged. At an increasingly uncomfortable dinner, Sylvia tells Clay, “‘I thought I was finished being the teenager who lay in her dorm room and felt racked with misery, wanting things she couldn’t have. But something came loose inside me, something got dislodged, and I am still that teenager.” The narrator of “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” describes her departure from her youth: “I’m relieved to have aged out of that visceral sense that my primary obligation is to be pretty.” In these stories, as characters measure their place on the spectrum of beauty—noting another woman’s “ski-jump nose and wide green eyes,” mitigating it with the satisfying presence of “crow’s feet” and “haggard leanness”—one suspects that this “visceral sense” never really disappears.
In “A Regular Couple,” Maggie, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer on her honeymoon, discovers that a popular high school classmate, Ashley, is spending her honeymoon at the same resort. Somewhat improbably, the two couples spend a substantial amount of time together, during which Maggie writhes with resentment over something Ashley did long ago. Though Maggie is objectively the more successful woman—she earned national fame while working on a controversial case—her gaze is fixed on Ashley, whom she privately refers to by her full maiden name with the reverence of a much-younger person. “That girl was the queen of my high school,” Maggie tells her husband, a man she describes as “a more attractive man than I am a woman.” Present-day Ashley reads as friendly, innocuous, and even oblivious, so that when Maggie believes she has “ceded the high ground,” Ashley Frye (now Ashley Horsford) doesn’t seem to notice. This, of course, is the worst indignity: the exchange that haunted Maggie didn’t imprint itself upon Ashley at all.
To be noticed and to be remembered: this is frequently the project of Sittenfeld’s characters. In “Off the Record,” single mother and freelance writer Nina is surprised to learn that Kelsey Adams, the celebrity she’s interviewing for Gloss & Glitter, recalls her from a previous interview: “Nina was shocked when she learned that Kelsey Adams had requested her—her, Nina, by name—to write the profile because Kelsey felt that back in 2011, they’d really ‘clicked.’” Nina is both flattered by the attention of a beautiful person and uncertain that she deserves it, an uncertainty she shares with Maggie of “A Regular Couple,” Sylvia of “Do-Over,” and Kirsten of “The Prairie Wife.” In “Gender Studies”—a story of deep humor and flawless structure—Nell, a professor whose partner recently left her for an admiring twenty-three-year-old graduate student, is jarred upon being told by another man that she, herself, is pretty. Few Sittenfeld characters can escape a preoccupation with prettiness.
The frequent presence of such concerns isn’t necessarily cause for complaint. First, because Sittenfeld’s writing is such fun to read, her worlds a blend of fierce intelligence, in-jokes, humblebrags, and crushing anxiety; second, because there is enough deviation to keep the collection from sticking to a single note. Though Nina is flattered by the attention of Kelsey Adams in “Off the Record,” the best moments in that story are the nerve-wracking texts she receives from the babysitter she’s hired for the first (and only) time: “I have tried everything,” complains the sitter, “In my 22 years as a care provider this is the most a baby has ever cried.” Though Nina is ostensibly focused on a celebrity’s prattle, the texts from the sitter create a meaningful tension, and underscore how uninteresting it is to listen to anyone’s practiced navel-gazing.
Another story that departs, somewhat, from questions of love and beauty, is “Volunteers Are Shining Stars.” Far from the landscape in which most of these stories thrive—private school, Ivy League, prenatal yoga, country clubs—“Volunteers Are Shining Stars” is set in a D.C.-area shelter and narrated by Frances, a volunteer who develops an immediate revulsion to a new volunteer, Alaina, who isn’t pretty. Frances is rigorous as she cites Alaina’s many failures in this regard—“bad skin,” “shoulder-length wavy brown hair that was dry in that way that means you’re too old to wear it long”—and unabashed about how little she wants to do with a woman she finds so unappealing. Alaina quickly becomes Frances’s scapegoat—a dynamic sufficient enough to support the story, so that when Sittenfeld adds explanations (Frances appears to have OCD), it weakens the pleasures of Frances’s blunt, sour narration. Frances manages to envy some of the women at the shelter simply because she finds them beautiful: “Another thing that impressed me about the mothers was their sexiness [ … ] whether or not they were overweight, dressed in tight, revealing clothes, and they looked good.” Sittenfeld suggests that it’s nearly impossible to find a place in which beauty loses its power; in her fiction, she uses that power magnificently.