Ten stories by bestselling novelist Sittenfeld (Eligible, 2016, etc.) probe the fissures beneath the surfaces of comfortable lives.
Donald Trump bookends the collection, as an alarming candidate in “Gender Studies” and an upset victor in “Do-Over.” His unexpected election suits the characters’ sense of the ground shifting underneath them, often due to false assumptions. Sometimes the mistaken ideas are deeply humiliating: The discontented wife in “The World Has Many Butterflies” discovers that the man with whom she’s been sharing bitchy assessments of fellow members of their affluent Houston social set is not the soul mate she thought and has been judging her by the conventional standards she believed they both despised. Sometimes they’re oddly liberating, as when the annoyingly perky wife and mother in “Bad Latch” proves to have some gumption to back up her chipper proclamations. But even the most positive stories have an undercurrent of unease. The protagonists of “Off the Record” and “The Prairie Wife” feel overwhelmed by the demands of parenthood; it’s probably not a coincidence that both are also grappling with mixed feelings about celebrities whose lives seem so much more exciting and important than theirs. Sittenfeld adroitly threads themes of disenchantment and perplexity through a group of stories whose characters, despite their reasonably secure middle-class professional status, share a feeling that their lives haven’t turned out the way they expected. Occasionally the plotting can be a little pat. The predictable unmasking of the narrator’s secret texting correspondent in “Plausible Deniability” somewhat mars a sad self-portrait of a man painfully aware of his inability to sustain meaningful personal relationships. But in the collection’s best stories, such as “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” even a slightly lurid denouement feels true to the protagonist’s fierce resistance to points of view that challenge her own closed-off perspective. Sittenfeld’s own perspective throughout is compassionate without being sentimental, hopeful without being naïve.
The way we live now, assessed with rue and grace.