Women bear the dark consequences of infidelity, lies, and other betrayals.
Novelist Shepard (The Celestials, 2013, etc.) has turned her keen eye to short fiction centered on the underbellies of the lives and relationships of women. The opening story, “Popular Girls,” about private school students in New York, begins with an almost anthropological survey: “You know who we are. We’re Kaethe and Alina, CJ and Sydney, Stephanie. We’re Asian or Scandinavian, white or vaguely black.” But if the reader expects an overview of Manhattan mean girls, the story quickly turns even more barbed than that when the popular girls—sophomores in high school—get into a limo with some strange men and end up, via a nightclub, at a strange apartment. Though the collective narrator admits to feeling “uneasy,” the story ends, “Do with us what you dare. Do with us what you can.” The chill of this ending shadows the whole book. In “Fire Horse,” a woman courts an incestuous affair with her brother. In “Girls Only,” the memory of their failure to help a friend during a sexual assault haunts a group of bridesmaids. Although many of the stories investigate the tangled aftermath of sexual anguish—from affairs with married men to gang rape—the greatest stories in this collection, “Light as a Feather” and “A Fine Life,” both look at relationships between a daughter and a parent. These stories take Shepard’s fascination with cruelty and soften those edges. “Light as a Feather” juxtaposes a stillbirth with the narrator’s relationship with her mother, who suffers from dementia. “A Fine Line” examines a woman’s unusual career path working with chimps and her past as a defector from communist China.
Dark and sexually violent, Shepard's work can disturb—but her sharp prose and insights into the human psyche make it worth the read.