marginalia || My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides

I remember saving up for My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, tried the whole a-few-coins-a-day route.  I even prayed to Santa, I begged friends. I rarely buy books brand-new–I’m technically, well, poor. But then, in the middle of last year, a story of mine had won an award. As soon as I cashed the check, I went straight to the bookstore and bought it [okay, fine, I detoured and bought the awesomest stilettos evahr].

The book’s now one of my most treasured books in my bookshelves. When I’m feeling absurd and sentimental, I wonder about the trade-off of one story written one slow day, with twenty-six masterpieces from writers classic and contemporary. When I’m feeling dorky, I reflect on how this all began when about two years ago, somewhere in the deep abyss of the internet, someone had posted a passage from Jeffrey Eugenides‘ introduction to the anthology. I wrote that down, fell in love, bought a tiny piggy bank in hopes of acquiring this book. This is that quote:

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims-these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

He warned us. The twenty-six stories in this collection aren’t the kind that leave a fuzzy glow in your chest–not in the conventional sense of, well, of fuzz. They hurt, they’re masterful, and they hurt. They are stories I’m glad to have discovered, because otherwise, I would’ve been a lesser person, I would’ve been a far more lackluster writer. In many ways, the anthology subverts our common notions of what a love story is supposed to be. And with every story, the redefinition is cemented. These are what love stories are. And Sasha says, These are the sort of love stories I’d gleefully read stranded on a deserted island. These are the stories that ought to be taught to impressionable writing students, haha.

One of the best things the anthology has given me–beyond enviable examples of craft–is that it led me to many authors [that makes this an elaboration on aforementioned enviable examples of craft]. Reading begets reading, yet again. It was in this book that I discovered Grace Paley–whose story “Love” is one of my favorites of the anthology. This lead me to her collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and though that book would not count as my favorite overall, I did still enjoy most of her shorter stories–besides, I’d acquired her two other collections, so there’s plenty of room for me to change my mind. There’s Harold Brodkey’s “First Love and Other Sorrows,” which has had me hunting down a definitive collection by the author.

“Jon,” is one of my favorite stories, and it’s by George Saunders, a writer I’d never heard of. I have resolved to read more of Eileen Chang. There’s “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek–I found it difficult to pinpoint which passages were note-worthy, because the language of the whole piece was just so good, and in a caught-this-reader-off-guard kind of way too. There’s “Yours” by Mary Robison, a short and deceptively simple story with one of the best endings ever, and such simple language:

He wanted to get drunk with his wife once more. He wanted to tell her, from the greater perspective he had, that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little. He wanted to assure her that she had missed nothing.

Of course, there is Miranda July, who is love. “Something that Needs Nothing,” isn’t one of my favorites from her collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, and I have some beef with Eugenides for that, haha. Still. I had high expectations of the anthology, of Eugenides’ decisions. So whenever I met a story that didn’t work for me, I take a note to reread it.  Most of the stories, though, have that immediate visceral ohmygoodness-seeking aspect to them. And they got it. Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Moon in Its Flight,” for example, had me going Meh going in. And then the language just drew me in. And then I had to reread it, and it all made perfect sense, and then some parts refused to make sense, refused to be defined, and that was fine by me.

Most, if not all, of these stories deserve a rereading. And I’ve discovered that it’s the nature of such stories to somehow glow brighter with every turn. Take Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”–incidentally, it was this story that urged me to finally get a copy of Chekhov’s Ward No.06 and Other Stories. It just gets better. Heartaches unravel. Not necessarily elaborated; they just take on more and more dimensions, and the result is a gem of a story that just gives more and more. Another is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a short story by Raymond Carver from his eponymous collection. How many times have I read this? How many times have I marveled at how charged the conversations are? How many times have I read the un-Lished version? There’s William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a story that, having read it first when I was fourteen, informed me that, hey, one could write about anything beautifully.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful collection. I cannot stress this enough. And also, I cannot find the words. I tried to use the word beautiful repeatedly. I tried to distract you by enumerating, by being inane. My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead is a collection of stories that make you breathless. It bids you to pause, it constantly reminds you that no, not everything is okay. And that you cannot find solace in these stories. I suppose Gilbert Sorrentino said it best:

Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.

Definitely one of the top reads of the year, of my goddamned life. Amen.

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29 comments

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages! thanks for confirming my belief that it’s gonna be awesome!
    x
    Aimee

    1. Hello, Aimee. I hope that when you read it, you enjoy it as much as I did. The stories are such a joy, and so diverse too. There’s definitely something for everyone here. Well, but I liked them all, haha.

  2. Piper · · Reply

    I bought this book the week it came out and I’ve been reading it since then. I know what you mean about rereading. I guess that’s why I’m taking so long to finish it, I keep going back to the stories!

    Great post. Your speechlessness carries over well. ;-)

    1. Thanks, Piper. It took me a long time to finish these too. I wanted to linger over the stories, I had to take long breaks before I went over the next one. And I know I’ll keep coming back to most of these stories in the future. )

  3. That cover is fabulous!!!

    1. Yes, it is. And the hardcover (the one I can’t afford, haha) has this wonderful drawing of a human heart. That sounds morbid, but it really is very pretty.

  4. selena · · Reply

    This is one of my hands down favourite short story anthologies. Eugenides wrote a masterful introduction that was just as beautiful as some of the stories.

    I’ve re-read it a few times since my first read last year.

    I’m glad you loved it, Sasha!

    1. I really lingered over Eugenides’ introduction. I think that I liked it more than some of the other stories, haha. And the stories in this book are definitely worth rereading over and over.

  5. YES. I actually just started reading this and Jeffery Euginedes’ introduction was quite possibly one of the best introductions I’ve ever read! I absolutely can’t wait to finish this collection– your post has made me that much more excited to read it!

    1. As I replied to Selena, Eugenides’ introduction could rival some of the stories in this collection. But that’s just me, haha. I hope you enjoy it–there’s definitely something for everybody here. :]

  6. Interesting, I couldn’t get into Miranda July’s collection. I read the first story, which reminded me of Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz but it didn’t leave me feeling like someone had shoved my head under water the way their stories do. Maybe I should give it another go and read more of the stories.

    Still, the book that you’re actually reviewing here looks very good.

    1. If I remember correctly, the first part of that first story didn’t do much for me–but when the guys had that seizure, it got better [that sounds odd]. Miranda July leaves me feeling like someone had shoved my head underwater. If you could, please keep reading some of the stories; the collection’s one of my favorites, ever.

  7. Jennifer · · Reply

    After reading your enthusiastic praise, all I can say is: I best get my hands on a copy of this book!

    1. Thank you–and please do. There’s definitely something for everyone here; and then, well, the stories are just very very good. :) I’ve gushed so much about it.

  8. I can’t believe I haven’t picked this one up. It just sounds fabulous. Thank you for such a great review. I’m going to see if my library has it! :)

    1. Thank you, Iliana. I hope that when you get to read it, you like the selection. There are so many good stories her; Eugenides’ introduction is as good as the lot.

  9. I want this book so badly! I’ve wanted it ever since it came out and I drooled over the hardcover version I was too poor to buy at bookshops – and I even sat down to read the wonderful introduction. Now that it’s out in paperback (and it’s been for a while, I know), I definitely need to invest in it. I have a feeling I’m going to love it as much as you did.

    1. I saved up for this too! And I really couldn’t afford the hardcover, so I had to suffer and wait. Get it, get it, get it. Eugenides’ intro is just one of the many joys of this book. :]

  10. Looks like you are making great headway
    Keep up the reading, don’t let that head sway
    Eyes on the page and coffee in hand
    You’ll be entering a new land.

    GO READER!

    1. Haha, thank you. :}

  11. [...] I’ve liked Harold Brodkey ever since I read two of his stories in Eugenides’ My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. I mean, it’s saying something that in the anthology, Eugenides decided to include two of [...]

  12. [...] My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. [...]

  13. [...] think it’s telling how Jeffrey Eugenides, in editing his anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, decided to include two of [...]

  14. [...] erotic fiction (and she’s not afraid to admit it!), and is also a devoted short story reader (check out her review of My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to [...]

  15. [...] on My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey [...]

  16. Finally bought this and so excited for it to arrive so I can start reading it!

    1. Hope you enjoy it! It’s a keepsake, really. The stories themselves are genius and lovely, but taking Eugenides’ collective-driven genius as an editor in mind, it’s just really really awesome.

  17. [...] about love, it’s difficult to pull off, and when it’s awesome, it just is: see My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro — but even here, as the anthology’s editor points out, “Love stories give love a [...]

  18. [...] My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides [...]

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