Not everyone loves a short story. Over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly fascinated by them, but the experience can be pretty hit-and-miss. Some collections are exquisite, with each story a perfectly contained world of its own that leaves me moved, surprised, sometimes astounded. Others can be a little more challenging – the experimental nature of the short-story form, freed from the novelistic confines of plot and structure, can be very liberating for a writer but also, especially for the reader, a bit perplexing. The more short stories I read, though, the more I appreciate them. And with my concentration currently at an all-time low, it seemed the perfect moment to dive into Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It.
This collection of eleven stories by the author of American Wife – a novel I read and enjoyed many years ago – is a literary tour de force, a straight-talking, almost ruthless look at the lives of mainly women in modern-day America. Relationships are at the heart of the collection, but also – and more interestingly – our innate human ability to misconstrue situations, read too much (or too little) into things, fail to understand our fellow human beings. These are stories about self-perception and the way we view others, observed with a level of accuracy that is often absolutely devastating.
As well as being a keen observer of humanity, Curtis Sittenfeld is a careful craftswoman when it comes to words. Her prose is tightly controlled, sophisticated and spiky, with an underlying layer of humour running right through the collection. She’s happy to exchange a wry smile with the reader (without ever spelling out what the joke’s about), but equally happy to turn the tables on us. You never quite know what you’re getting with these stories, but I found the pacing perfect, the words themselves a joy to read, and the resolution almost always satisfactory – no matter whether it was roughly what I was expecting or a concluding sentence that gave me a sharp dig in the ribs.
I can genuinely say that I enjoyed every one of these eleven stories, though some stood out more than others. ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, which revolves around the titular game of You Think It, I’ll Say It, is a sensitive portrayal of a disappointed marriage and the lies we all tell ourselves without necessarily meaning to. ‘The Nominee’ is told from the point of view of a female politician who couldn’t be more identical to Hillary Clinton, drawing us into her life through the perspective of an impersonal but lasting relationship with a journalist. ‘Bad Latch’ is an unusual meditation on motherhood and the way we can build up unspoken relationships that somehow end up defining our sense of self. And one of my favourites, ‘The Prairie Wife’, is a searing depiction of how we all crave attention, a story that made me feel amused, sad and embarrassed in equal measure.
I think it is Curtis Sittenfeld’s ability to make me feel ever so slightly uncomfortable – yet never in a bad way – that made me love these stories so much. Sometimes I found her characters prickly or awkward; on occasion I downright disliked them. Sometimes I felt almost voyeuristic, privy to the intimacies of someone else’s life in a way that I didn’t quite want to be; at other points I recognised myself in her characters in a manner that made me squirm in my seat. And although at times I felt wrong-footed, there was never a moment in which I didn’t understand the world I was in or the people I was with. Setting is crucial to any short story – there just isn’t the space for gradual world-building that a novelist has – and Curtis Sittenfeld has mastered this technique with elegance and precision.
Even if you aren’t normally a short-story fan, I would highly recommend this collection. Speedy to read, whip-smart and perceptive, it’s a brilliant piece of social commentary that made me narrow my eyes at both myself and the world – the kind of book that will linger somewhere at the back of my mind always.
My rating: 5/5