In this story collection—which follows her debut novel, the well-received Atmospheric Disturbances (2008)—Galchen, one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, continues to plumb the unbelievable and unknowable mysteries of existence.
These are literary short stories, but there’s a detective lurking in their author, who peels back fine layers of life with close observation to uncover clues about the physics of daily living and how we process the world. In the title story, a woman wakes one morning to discover a third breast has grown on her back; she has to wrestle with societal expectations of beauty and identity. In "Once an Empire," the narrator says, “I’m a pretty normal woman…,” which immediately cues the reader to wonder what isn’t normal about her, or the story; soon she's watching the contents of her apartment—furniture, utensils and objects—get up and walk out. Do these things represent her life, and if they’re so important to her, why is she willing to watch them leave? And things get stranger in "The Region of Unlikeness": A woman discovers that her crush, a man she met at a cafe, is supposedly a time traveler, and his friend, whom she doesn’t much care for, is his father—and maybe her potential future husband. Not all the stories venture into the fantastic, though; many poke and prod at the challenges of the everyday, as in "Sticker Shock," which compares the finances of a mother and daughter and is written in the tone of an accountant’s review, and "The Lost Order," in which a woman obscures the fact that she’s lost her job from her husband and ponders what her life will be like as "a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed….”
Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.