You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

“Oh, our private habits, our private selves—how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.”

You could say that Curtis Sittenfeld is the reason I’m a book reviewer. Back when I worked as a library assistant in London, I filled the hours of tedium by writing one- or two-paragraph responses to every book I read, but these just sat in a Word file and never saw the light of day. I had so little confidence in my writing that I didn’t show these proto-reviews to anyone, not even on Goodreads. One day in 2011, though, I saw that Stylist magazine was looking for a temporary books columnist; to be considered you had to submit a 100-word review of your favorite book by a woman. I chose Sittenfeld’s American Wife, her masterfully introspective 2008 novel from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush. It was great practice in being concise, that’s for sure, and Stylist chose me as a finalist. (You can see my 100-word review here.) From there it went to public voting on the website. Alas, I didn’t win, but it was the first time I got recognition for a book review, and I was hooked. When I left my job in 2013 to go freelance, I was determined that reviewing would be part of my work.

Sittenfeld is still one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read everything she’s written. Like Maggie O’Farrell and Carolyn Parkhurst, her work is perfectly balanced between women’s fiction and literary fiction and she describes families and romantic relationships expertly, in prose so deliciously smooth it slides right down. If you’re a fan of her novels, I would certainly recommend these 11 short stories to you. They’re about marriage, parenting, authenticity, celebrity and social media in Trump’s America, with the two key recurring elements of role reversal and retrospect.

The opening story, “The Nominee,” which only appears in the U.K. edition, feels like a natural follow-up to American Wife. Though never named, the narrator is clearly Hillary Clinton, and in a voice that’s consistent with her memoirs she ponders her struggle to earn popular appeal: “The typical American voter doesn’t wish to share a beer with me.” It’s 2016 and she’s about to be interviewed by a younger female journalist who has written about her dozens of times. Back in 2002 she was compassionate when this journalist fell apart during an interview, but she knows not to expect the same courtesy in return. No, she fully expects to be burned. But still the nominee truly believes she’ll win, as the opposite outcome would be catastrophic.

Yet that’s the reality in the final story, “Do-Over,” which was shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. In the wake of Trump’s election, Clay hears from Sylvia, a high school classmate, out of the blue and meets up with her for dinner in Chicago. She’s still sore about the sexist nature of the election at Bishop Academy in which, despite having tied, she was given the patronizing, made-up role of “assistant prefect” while Clay was named senior prefect. Sylvia has engineered this fake date as a gift to herself, to see what could happen, and she’s going to behave as badly as she wants.

The role reversal is clearest in “Gender Studies” and “A Regular Couple.” In the former, Nell, a gender studies professor, accidentally uses a taxi driver for sex. In the latter, Maggie is on her honeymoon with Jason; though they’re both lawyers, she recently handled a sportsman’s rape trial and earns 20 times what Jason does in nonprofit immigration law. There’s another flipping of positions in this one: among the other honeymooners at their ski resort is Ashley Frye, who was one of the popular girls at Maggie’s high school and made her feel awkward and inferior. But Maggie’s TV appearances have given her an aura of celebrity: now she’s the popular one, and she has an idea for how to get revenge on Ashley.

The most similar to Sittenfeld’s early fare is “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” in which a college student loses her virginity under bizarre circumstances in 1994. Several stories involve a dual time setting: a decade or more later, characters reflect on the strange turns their lives have taken to get them where they are now and have a chance to rethink the decisions they made.

My favorite single story is “Plausible Deniability,” the only time I can think of that Sittenfeld has used a male point-of-view. The narrator is William, a 41-year-old lawyer in St. Louis who has distinctly different relationships with his brother and his sister-in-law. There’s a clever surprise in this one, as there is later on in “The Prairie Wife,” and it makes you ask about the various ways there are of being close with another person.

Other stories concern new mothers’ guilt and compromises, the temptation of adultery, and the danger of jealousy and making up your mind about someone too soon. I was less sure about “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” voiced by a character with OCD and set among African-Americans at a family shelter in Washington, D.C., and I thought “Off the Record” was a bit too similar to “The Nominee.” Overall, though, this is a whip-smart, current and relatable book, ideal for readers who don’t think they like short stories.

My rating:

 

You Think It, I’ll Say It is published in the UK today, May 3rd, by Doubleday. My thanks to the publisher for the free review copy.

24 thoughts on “You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s work, though it took me a long time to get round to her as I formed the judgmental idea that anyone with a name like that must write for Mills and Boon. That’ll learn me. I’ll be sure to look out for these.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this collection as well (although mine didn’t include The Nominee!). I thought it was an amazingly even collection – I normally read short stories and kind of rank them as I go but not so with this book, it was gripping from start to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I twigged when I saw a U.S. friend’s Goodreads review mention the first story being “Gender Studies,” so I did a See Inside on Amazon USA and saw that it’s only 10 stories there. Did you read it from NetGalley?

      There were a few slightly weaker/repetitive stories for me, but overall it’s very strong and comparable to her best novels.

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  3. I am so embarrassed to admit that, although you’ve talked about Sittenfeld here before and recommended her to me!–I thought she was a man. And I thought, huh, that’s really interesting that a male author would tackle women’s literature themes. Now, I really need to check out her books. Your short review is wonderful. You’d be awesome at writing book blurbs and novel synopses for agent query letters–something I’m currently working on. As for her short stories, I’m interested especially in her story written from a male POV, as I’ve been doing that quite a bit lately in my own fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was definitely a time when I thought she was a man! I think this book marks the first time she’s written from a man’s POV, and only the second time (after the book “Eligible”) that she’s written in the third person. The book is about half third person (5 stories) and half first person (6 stories) — I just realized I meant to say that but didn’t fit it into the review.

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    1. Well, that didn’t directly lead to anything paid, but it did encourage me to start submitting volunteer reviews to various places, some of which no longer exist. Then towards the summer of 2013 I took on my first paying gigs with Kirkus and Bookmarks magazine; I still write for them today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so excited about this. I’m a big Sittenfeld fan (though I hated Eligible) and just finished re-reading American Wife. I’m particularly interested to read the stories about Clinton in particular – and thrilled that she’s developing these into a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m overdue for a re-read of American Wife. I can never seem to justify re-reading when I have such a large reviewing pile!

      It’s interesting to me that she would choose Clinton as a subject when there are already three volumes of HRC memoirs. Whereas, when she wrote American Wife, Laura Bush’s ghost-written memoir hadn’t been released yet.

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  5. That’s such a cool story about your American Wife review! And, I loved that book 🙂
    And I also loved these short stories…it’s the first Sittenfeld since I read American Wife and I now want to go back and read Eligible, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve made me want to run out and get this so I can find out what happens in all the stories you’ve mentioned! But I’ll be patient and just put it on the list for now. 🙂
    It’s interesting that your favourite story is the one with the male perspective. Is it because it’s different than the others, or is it strictly the story you like?

    I enjoyed reading about how you got into reviewing books!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So if you think this would be a great collection for those who don’t normally like short stories, would you still recommend it to those who already do like short stories? Either way, I’m keen to read these: I’m a huge fan. So…no pressure on your reply! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This does sound interesting and I will definitely pick it up if I come across it (do you think a British person will pick up all the clues and hints e.g. with the one about Clinton?). It was fascinating to hear how you got into pro book reviewing, too. I kept a written book journal way before I did a blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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