Cortese (Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories, 2015) tells stories of young women on the cusp of adulthood, struggling to understand the social world.
In “Sweetness on the Tongue,” teenage Lily accompanies her mother, an acclaimed poet, to a writing conference. There, she deftly records her observations of the fellow attendees—including a charismatic young father and the teenage son of a novelist, who's eager for intimacy and connection. The narration shines when Lily voices the uncomfortable truths of her mother’s social performance but falters when the prose becomes too saccharine. This story sets the tone for the remainder of the collection, nearly all of which focuses on the relationships between young women and their parents, siblings, and casual interlopers. In “Firebug,” a pyrokinetic girl works to earn her sister’s trust to attend a school dance her sister is organizing. Her earnest desires elicit painful sympathy, though the metaphor of a flammable teenage girl is a bit on the nose. In “Welcome to Snow,” the narrator’s Sacred Heart High School linebacker brother, Simon, impregnates his girlfriend, Arlene, as the narrator attempts to forge a connection with Peter, the quarterback. Poignantly, the focus of the narrative shifts from the heterosexual romances to the intimate friendship between Arlene and the narrator, which is beautifully drawn. As the collection advances, similar narrators can feel interchangeable, but stories like “Straight and Narrow,” about a woman teaching a YMCA cooking class containing a recently released felon, break up the pattern and rescue the stories from monotony. The collection's strongest stories portray fragile romantic connections with unsparing criticism, voice uncomfortable truths about the way young people interact in modern culture, and ask questions about how girls approach freedom and desire.
These portraits are a welcome addition to the burgeoning canon of finely wrought female stories.