i had never thought much of this book. sure, i had seen it around, the way you see things, but short stories about the love lives of women?? barf city. i don’t read chick lit because i don’t find it particularly interesting: shopping, looking for a husband, planning a family—none of these things are “me.” but when i went to the adam levin reading with oriana, jami attenberg was also reading. she read a portion of the first short story in this collection, and everything i am made of responded with joy. this is nowhere near chick lit!! i told her as much at the bar after the reading and i made her promise to come to my store and sign stock that i would order in quantity and keep permanently on my table. since then, they have sold very well, and a co-worker of mine read this book, and is halfway through her full-length novel.
she has taken over union square, ms attenberg has.
the first story is still my favorite. it uses a deceptively breezy and conversational tone, chatty like any teenage girl:
Tonight she’s going on a date, that’s why all the makupping. She’s going out with a boy named Christian who is nineteen and who likes the Smiths and the Cure and New Order. Holly is seventeen and likes New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division. She knows she should like the Smiths but Morrissey seems like such a whiny turd. Holly has lied to Christian about this because he worships Morrissey. Morrissey changed his life forever, that’s what Christian says. he’s a vegetarian now and everything. Meat is murder, he says.
christian sounds like every guy i dated when i was fourteen; so earnest and aimless and doomed, so doomed…
And he has shaved the sides of his head and left the hair on top long so that it spills over his narrow face in an awkward way and makes him look vaguely like a celery stick.
in other words, he looks like this:
but rarrrr—this story is a tightly compressed block of experiential data that will kick your ass. it is everything that makes up teen love and betrayal. it is all of the teenaged feelings of insecurity and wanting to belong while paradoxically simultaneously feeling superior to everyone else in your peer group.
it was so familiar and perfectly captured—feelings that were so strong turning so abruptly, engaging in relationships as scientific or anthropological studies:
And then he says: Are you turned on?
He asks her questions like this, and she has to answer yes even if she feels stupid saying it, because if she doesn’t he will stop with the experimenting.
oh, god, the things we teenaged girls put up with…
the rest of the stories follow the same three characters through various stages in their lives. its structure is like a somewhat less experimental goon squad in that some of the stories are halfway over before the connection to the previous characters is even revealed.
it covers every nook and cranny of “relationships:” nostalgic longings for the one that got away, embittered endings, self-destructive one-night-stands, opportunistic flirtations, unsuitable first (and second) dates…
My love life since I moved to New York from Chicago has been like a desert. I’ve had tiny little interactions of love, like finding shallow pools of water to drink from, and then I’ve moved on, hoping that I’ve stored enough love and affection and excitement to get me to the next place.
I’ve been stuck with a string of unsuccessful two-month relationships, the deaths of which have burned out almost all my romantic instinct and desire. I was in love with Alan, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. I’m probably still not ready. But being who I am—not that I particularly know who I am, I just know who I’m not—I felt I should keep trying for love. I mixed up the real dates with the one-night-stands just enough to keep myself satiated. On the dates you did not fuck, in the bars you did. Those late nights at the bars, I recognize now, were just as much work as the dates: the talking, the drinking, the questioning, the laughing so hard at jokes that weren’t that funny. They just never were funny. It’s not funny, none of it, I know.
it is a whole spectrum of short stories—loosely gathered. it reads like calling an old friend after a three-year absence and witnessing where they are now vs where you had left them. i really enjoyed the structure of this thing. unlike a novel, not all of the details are spelled out—there is much lost in silence, many scenes are allusions only. in the real world, even friends, even lovers, have these knowledge gaps. this structure gives off a strong sense of realism precisely because of these omissions.
this collection could quite easily have gone the cynical route. why are all relationships doomed, why are all men assholes blah blah blah. but these characters, although occasionally bitter or vengeful, keep on trying to make their connections. just because one fails, doesn’t mean there isn’t the right one that will be the right one. there is an optimism to all of these characters, even at their lowest, that the perfect match is possible. and it is bittersweet and endearing.
Sarah Lee falls in love every time she takes the subway, so she’s started taking the bus instead. The L train from Williamsburg to the East Village is killing her, with all these cute young boys, with their lovely young skin and doe eyes and mussed-up hair, mussed up just so and their vintage-store winter coats, some military style, stiff and serious-looking, some more textured and glamorous, as if they should be walking the streets of London circa 1932; and all kinds of crazy kicks on their feet, expensive tennis shoes of vibrant colors, sturdy walking boots, and lately, cowboy boots with heels, but those are worn by the gay boys, so she just admires their feet and ignores the rest. And they are all reading books, worn paperbacks mainly, she imagines they’ve borrowed from roommates or girlfriends, or listening to their iPods on shuffle. Some of them are checking out the girls—their glamour-puss counterparts, equally casually yet strictly attired—looking at their asses or their hair or their new shoes, wondering what those shoes would look like wedged between the bed and wall of their crappy, crumbly apartment, their naked bodies splayed out in some uncomfortable, pornographic position. They are wondering what it would be like to fuck them, Sarah Lee firmly believes. And while she doesn’t want that, want them to only want to fuck her, she wishes, still, that they might glance at her. But they don’t. They look anywhere but at her, in the old winter coat she bought at the ninety-nine-cents-a-pound Salvation Army outlet in Seattle, fading pink wool with childlike bejeweled buttons she sewed on herself, not as tough as it used to be, sometimes coats just die, she needs to admit that to herself one of these days; and even if they looked beyond the coat she knows she is too old and not cool enough for them, and sometimes she still speaks with a stutter when she meets new people (though it is much better now) so that even if they could see something in her once she opened her mouth they might move on to the next person, pretend like she didn’t exist, until suddenly, she simply didn’t. And there is nothing worse than not existing.
So she takes the bus to the city instead…
seriously well done.