Well-off, well-intentioned people find their just-so lives upended, often in curious ways, in this first collection of short stories by Eugenides (The Marriage Plot, 2011, etc.).
Two of the stories here are close cousins to Eugenides' novels: “Air Mail” features Mitchell, the lovelorn spiritual seeker in The Marriage Plot, battling a case of dysentery in Thailand, while “The Oracular Vulva” concerns a researcher studying the same intersexual characteristics that stoked the plot of Middlesex (2002). But neither of those stories reads like a lesser dry run for a more serious work, and the collection throughout is marked by a rich wit, an eye for detail, and a sense of the absurd. The plots often involve relationships hitting the skids, as in “Early Music,” in which a couple watches their artistic ambitions crash into the brick wall of fiscal responsibility, or “Find the Bad Guy,” about a green-card marriage gone awry. (The contents of the narrator’s pockets tell a pathetic tale in itself: “loose change, 5-Hour Energy bottle, and an Ashley Madison ad torn from some magazine.”) Eugenides enjoys putting his characters into odd predicaments: “Baster” centers on a woman pursuing a pregnancy via the title’s kitchen gadget, while the writer who narrates “Great Experiment” contemplates defrauding his wealthy but stingy employer, using de Tocqueville’s writings as a rationalization. But Eugenides never holds up his characters for outright mockery, and the two fine new stories that bookend the collection gracefully navigate darker territory: “Complainers” is narrated by a woman confronting her longtime friend’s dementia, and “Fresh Complaint” turns on a young Indian-American woman’s provocative scheme to escape an arranged marriage. We humans are well-meaning folk, Eugenides means to say, but life tends to force us into bad behavior.
Sprightly or serious, Eugenides consistently writes about complex lives with depth and compassion.