Last year I read and loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an irresistibly funny modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This fall, I want to get back into some short story reading, so I thought I’d pick up Sittenfeld’s more serious new collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It. The two have been vastly different reading experiences.
About the book: A collection of “regular” people in seemingly ordinary circumstances learn that there is always more to people than what one might assume. From new moms in infant classes to college freshman to successful lawyers, the characters of this book form relationships or impressions of the people that they think they know best– and eventually come to realize that what they’ve known about their acquaintances has been no more than a product of their own imaginations.
Usually when I’m reading a story collection or anthology I take notes on each piece individually to review in a few sentences. I did start reading with that method, but by the fourth story or so I realized that all of these pieces are variations of the same theme. All of my notes for the individual stories started looking the same, because the stories all felt the like different angles of the same view.
I appreciate the morals this collection has to offer: mainly that making assumptions about other people (even if you feel bad about it, even if you keep your thoughts to yourself) is a bad and potentially harmful habit. It’s something we should all be more careful of. But it’s also a lesson the reader can learn in one or two stories, rather than the ten of this book that all seem to grind out the same message. Once you figure out Sittenfeld’s formula, these stories become predictable and it’s hard to take anything new from subsequent stories. So instead of talking about them each individually, I’ll say that my favorites were “Bad Latch” and “Do-Over,” my least favorite was “Volunteers are Shining Stars,” and I would probably recommend reading a few of the titles– whichever ones catch your eye, they all have about equal merit– rather than all of them, and especially rather than reading all of them in one go.
One of the supposed highlights of You Think It, I’ll Say It is that it subverts stereotypes. It challenges all sorts of assumptions that the reader is likely familiar with. Unfortunately, all of the assumptions it seemed to be challenging were old-news to me, and some felt particularly forced.
” ‘Bobby was in the wrong too,’ I said. ‘But Ashley shouldn’t have poached another girl’s boyfriend.’ “
There’s also one in which a couple is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship where the withholding of the partner’s gender feels unnecessarily dramatic; Sittenfeld is perhaps trying to catch the reader in an assumption, but making such a big deal out of how acceptable the relationship is takes away any sort of normalization the story might have been striving for. And then there is again the issue of repetition– by the time you’ve reached the secret-gender story (chronologically), you know every assumption is wrong, and can predict exactly where the story’s headed and which details are trying (and failing) to mislead you along the way.
Also, and this would probably go unnoticed by most readers, it really bugs me when people from Iowa are stereotyped as bumpkins. Sure, Iowa has a lot of corn and it’s not a hot vacation spot, but it is not the most desolate place full of idiots. This is just ridiculous:
“I’d been at Dartmouth long enough to recognize the name of a fancy boarding school, even if I was from Des Moines.”
“What boy would want my dowdy Iowan virginity?”
The closest we get to an excuse for these comments is being told that the Iowan girl thinking them suffers from a lack of self-confidence.
In the end, I thought this collection’s biggest fault was simply a lack of subtlety.
“Is there some subtext to this comment? He isn’t sure.”
Me, either. I disliked most of the characters, partially because they seemed dumb not to realize how far astray their assumptions were leading them when the reader can see it so clearly. Individually, there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with any of these stories, and I think any one of them would stand better on its own than the group did as a whole, but none of them managed to surprise or impress me, either. It just seemed a bit… aimless. Like this story ending, which didn’t seem to know if it was supposed to be an ending at all.
“They’re both quiet, and, weirdly, this is where the conversation ends, or maybe, given that it’s past eleven and Casey’s alarm is set for six-fifteen or possibly for six, it isn’t weird at all.
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I actually rated most of the stories 3 stars on an individual basis, but as I got more bored and frustrated with that mediocrity toward the end I bumped my overall rating down, based on enjoyment level. I was vastly underwhelmed, though it’s hard to say there was anything truly wrong with this book. It’s just a collection for readers who don’t mind repetition, which I am not. I’m not sure if I’ll try any more of Sittenfeld’s work, or just hold on to my happy memories of Eligible.
Do you have any favorite short story collections?
The Literary Elephant