Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
This collection of eight stories by Curtis Sittenfeld could not be more riveting. From the first word to the last, there’s not a false note. The stories unfold effortlessly and offer surprising twists; the events are believable and the narrators pull you in. In the first story a professor of women’s studies attending a conference, against all odds, ends up sleeping with the driver of her airport shuttle. In the title story a suburban housewife forges a quirky social relationship with a married man whom she falls in love with, only to learn he’s leaving his wife for someone else. The plots keep you turning the pages, always wanting more, in the manner of high-level genre fiction by writers like John Grisham and Michael Connelly. When I re-read them, the stories were just as good the second time around. So why don’t I like them better?
The stories pose problems in the characters’ lives that are interesting, perplexing, and often troubling. They are not superficial. What, then, could be wrong? In answering this question I kept thinking about the novel we’d just read in the Andes book group, Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. The novel’s structure is shaky, the heroine too good to be true, some of the writing is ungainly. But like all Dickens novels, the Tale has in abundance one quality that Sittenfeld’s stories lack: that quality is heart. Dickens, a genius at depicting human nature, has a sharp eye for its flaws—social, moral, intellectual—but he also has a wellspring of sympathy and compassion that arouses our own, so that we find ourselves melting at the goodness, courage, devotedness, and generosity his characters are capable of. The main plot element of the Tale turns on Sidney Carton, a drunk and dissolute man who, though highly intelligent, plays a subservient role in an attorney’s office and never makes anything of himself. But he gives up his life to save the husband of the woman he adores in order to preserve her happiness and that of her father and daughter. He does this with no hesitation, no fanfare, and no thought for himself. And although the gesture is nothing if not melodramatic, it is entirely believable, for Dickens’s conception of humanity includes bravery, self-sacrifice, and the invincible power of love.
Curtis Sittenfeld, by contrast, focuses on the venality of human nature, its pettiness, vanity, and self-defeating tendencies. By revealing her main characters’ self-criticisms, excuses, small-minded observations, guilty pleasures, embarrassments, and self-deceptions—the list goes on—the author gets us to identify with them. We know these people because they’re so much like ourselves. The physical details that throng the stories are familiar: a lost credit card that falls through a hole in a jacket pocket, a man stretching in his driveway before taking a morning run, a woman checking her phone obsessively and furtively for a certain message; Sittenfeld gets so far inside her characters and tracks them with such precision, we can’t escape being hooked.
It may be unreasonable to ask for any more than she gives us: an incisive registration of life in the upper middle class, seen chiefly from a woman’s perspective, a life so expertly rendered we can’t put the stories down. The trouble is not just that nobody’s happy or particularly admirable, it’s that the author never lets you feel that life has anything more to offer. It’s as if Sittenfeld is so afraid of being thought idealistic, or naïve, or insufficiently sophisticated, that she can’t allow herself to see beyond the ways that circumstance brings out our weaknesses, stifles our desires, and scuttles our dreams. One could say that she lacks vision, but really, sympathy, magnanimity, and affection for human beings are what’s missing.
There’s a moment at the end of one story in which a young mother who’s a journalist arrives back at her hotel after an unsatisfactory interview with a narcissistic, calculating movie star. During the interview her breast milk has leaked all over her blouse, but when she sees her young daughter in the arms of the baby sitter she’s overcome with happiness and relief at the sight of something so precious and so real. This is the only moment of its kind I remember from the collection, but it indicates that Sittenfeld is capable of something more than polished, witty, and ultimately depressing accounts of human foibles.
Please don’t get me wrong. The stories are worth reading. They will keep you absorbed for a cross country flight and at times their brilliant craftsmanship is exhilarating. For sheer virtuosity they can’t be beat. So enjoy them. But remember, as you do, that there’s more in heaven and on earth than is accounted for in their philosophy.~