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.