A dozen stories about homeownership, cohabitation, and other domestic perils, suffused to various degrees with Shriver’s (The Mandibles, 2016, etc.) political concerns.
The Standing Chandelier, the stellar novella that opens this collection, concerns Jillian, a bright but eccentric middle-aged artist who’s longtime best friends with Weston—until he gets engaged to Paige, who resents Jillian’s invasiveness (symbolized by the quirky wedding gift of the title) and demands he cut her off. The story recalls Shriver at her best (i.e., 2007’s The Post-Birthday World): keenly alert to interior matters of jealousy, romance, and friendship and exterior matters of manners and decorum. The entire collection is unified by the question of how new arrangements, be they via marriage or a house, change or reveal our personalities, though none of the stories quite matches the opener. A few are irony-rich satires about contemporary living: In “Negative Equity,” a married couple splits up but are loath to find new homes while their current one is underwater; in “Paradise to Perdition,” an embezzler finds life on the lam at a tropical resort is duller than he’d hoped for. But in recent years, Shriver has become something of a scold in both her essays and fiction about what she sees as our overly sensitive, gumption-impaired society, and a handful of these stories are effectively chastising op-eds. “The ChapStick” is a critique of the Transportation Security Administration told via a man hastening to reach his dying father; in “Domestic Terrorism” (note the overheated title), a couple is at a loss about what to do about their layabout son, a vehicle for much grousing about shiftless millennials; and the closing novella, The Subletter, sourly and clunkily likens the lives of two women writers with the warring factions during Ireland’s Troubles.
Few writers are so committed to using fiction to explore the intimate impact of formal regulations and informal social engineering, but it remains a hit-and-miss project.