The Book Itself: This is really, really cool. It looks like a photograph, right? It’s actually an incredibly detailed painting. One that I’d like to hang in my own house! Look how good that is!!
My Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow is that rare and wonderful thing: a debut that is superbly accomplished, endlessly entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Maya is in love with both her boyfriend and her boss. Sadie’s lover calls her as he drives to meet his wife at marriage counseling. Gwen pines for her roommate, a man who will hold her hand but then tells her that her palm is sweaty. And Sasha agrees to have a drink with her married lover’s wife and then immediately regrets it. These are the women of Single, Carefree, Mellow, and in these eleven sublime stories they are grappling with unwelcome houseguests, disastrous birthday parties, needy but loyal friends, and all manner of love, secrets, and betrayal.
In “Cranberry Relish” Josie’s ex—a man she met on Facebook—has a new girlfriend he found on Twitter. In “Blue Heron Bridge” Nina is more worried that the Presbyterian minister living in her garage will hear her kids swearing than about his finding out that she’s sleeping with her running partner. And in “The Rhett Butlers” a teenager loses her virginity to her history teacher and then outgrows him.
In snappy, glittering prose that is both utterly hilarious and achingly poignant, Katherine Heiny chronicles the ways in which we are unfaithful to each other, both willfully and unwittingly. Maya, who appears in the title story and again in various states of love, forms the spine of this linked collection, and shows us through her moments of pleasure, loss, deceit, and kindness just how fickle the human heart can be.
I read this in just two days, and found the stories to be well-written, quick reads. A central story problem really affected my reading of it, and overall I have read better story collections.
Now, allow me to get a little rant-y for a second. Almost every story in here involves a woman having an affair. Wife cheats on husband, girlfriend cheats on fiance, underaged girl sleeps with her middle-aged teacher, woman thinks about cheating on her partner, etc. I think only one story had zero traces of affair/adultery (which just happened to be one of my favorites. The book depicts motherhood well, and “That Dance You Do” is particularly good).
Now, my problem is not writing about adultery itself. I am aware that, unfortunately, it happens. Quite often. That many marriages end in divorce. That people get wrapped up in this person outside of their commitment and make mistakes and blah blah blah.
BUT. This was pitched as a short story collection that celebrates women. The description of this books on websites is filled with quips and quotes of reviewers and celebrities claiming it “‘gives women’s interior lives the gravity they so richly deserve'” (Lena Dunham), and “‘These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive…beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.'” (Kirkus (starred)). And I found that it did none of that.
My main problem stems from this: Women have so many more interesting things to say, and interesting things to do, than to have affairs. Returning to the same plot device — an affair — again and again not only becomes terribly repetitive, it becomes borderline offensive (at least to this reader). Heiny could have depicted any number of other “sins,” weaknesses, moments of clarity for the women in her stories. And yet it’s sleeping around that she chooses to highlight again and again. It’s a bad story choice that irked me right up until the last story, when the first sentence mentioned a lover and a spouse, and I actually said aloud “Oh, come on!!”
I could go on, but in order to spare you from my frustrated, offended rantings, I will move on.
Heiny includes three stories with the same characters, which I actually kind of liked amidst a collection of short stories of unrelated protagonists. I didn’t find Maya or her boyfriend very likable. Or compelling. But the device of having three short stories set in the same world, spaced evenly apart in the collection was a good one.
“Blue Heron Bridge” was about cheating, but I thought it did it in almost a satire, tongue in cheek kind of way. I liked the quirky characters in this one (one of them is named Bunny Pringle. Seriously), and if it had been only one of a couple that had to do with adultery, it would have made a much stronger impression.
“That Dance You Do” was excellent. Depicting a suburban-dwelling mother tasked with throwing a young child’s birthday party, and commenting on the mistakes and heartaches along the way was very well done. I am not a mother, but I did think that the interior thoughts of this fictional mother were right on track with the mothers I do know. I related to her strongly, despite being nowhere near living in her shoes.
Despite the two strong stories above, no one in this collection stood out. It felt like they all spoke with the same voice. It could have been the same character narrating this whole collection. They have the same attitudes towards their children (unfailing love), their friends (flawed by irreplaceable), and their affairs (not a single one of them seems to feel badly about sleeping with someone else. The apathy was something else I detested). I’m not sure I’ll recall any story in particular when remembering this book (probably because they all do the same thing, commit the same wrongs). Disappointing and frustrating, really.
My Grade: C-