Tuesday, June 3, 2014
June 3, 2014: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Spoiled
[For the last couple years I’ve featured a summertime series on some AmericanStudies books you can pack along with the sunscreen and cold beverages. As summer approaches, it feels right to share some more beach reads—please share your own favorite or future summer page-turners for a weekend post we can all bring with us to the shore or the pool!]
On the short stories that spoke to me despite myself.
Great Beach Reads, like great art period, can often be found in the most surprising places. Last fall I taught my third Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) class, this one focused on American women’s short stories (by both 19th century and contemporary writers). At the end of the five-week class, one of the students (a woman who has taken, and been a hugely valuable voice in, all three ALFA classes I’ve taught thus far) handed me a collection of short stories: Caitlin Macy’s Spoiled (2009). It turns out that Macy, also author of the novel The Fundamentals of Play (2001), is this student’s daughter; many of the short stories we had read dealt with parents and children, so for the student to give me a collection of stories by her own daughter was about as resonant a concluding moment as I can imagine.
After such an introduction, of course I was going to read Macy’s collection; but I’ll admit that I didn’t initially do so with a sense that they were up my alley. The jacket blurb elaborates on the book’s title, describing the stories’ protagonists as “well-heeled thirtysomething women who despite their education and affluence struggle to keep their footing in their relationships with their friends, their parents, their spouses, and their children.” I try not to let my feelings on contemporary American issues of wealth and inequality get in the way of my enjoyment of literature, but it was hard not to feel as if the publication of such a book in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown was, let’s say, an unfortunate coincidence of timing. So I began reading Spoiled out of a sense of obligation, which (as I’m sure my students can attest) represents a significant challenge to the genuine enjoyment of a text.
All of which I say to say this: I enjoyed the heck out of Spoiled, and, given all that baggage, that’s a very definite reflection on Macy’s talents. She utilizes the elements of great short story writing—complex, somewhat unreliable narration and character perspectives; structures that carry us along and lead to often surprising yet authentic conclusions; deftly drawn people and places, characters and settings—to wonderful effect, with nary an unsatisfying story in the bunch. Within a page or two of each story I had forgotten that I was reading about what one reviewer called “the impossibilities of privilege” and was simply immersed in her characters and worlds, her sharp observations of identities and relationships, her witty and compelling voices. It doesn’t matter whether you’d want to hang out with these characters if they were real; you most definitely will want to spend time with Macy’s fictional versions, and they’d keep you excellent company pool-side this summer.
Next beach read tomorrow,
PS. What would you recommend for a good beach read? What are you hoping to get to by the pool this summer?