Book Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny
I heard about this collection of short stories from Ann at Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts. While I don't always gravitate toward the same books as the hosts of BOTN, they are so exquisitely detailed in their book descriptions without being spoilery that I can identify what I will like. The vast majority of the time. This time I missed the mark.
Ann described this collection as, "funny, but in a very sophisticated way." She discussed how the relationships were recognizable. When she used the adjective "brilliant," I decided that this collection would be the book of short stories I would read for my Reading Challenge.
Unfortunately, I would describe this collection as overwhelmingly vapid. The majority of the women portrayed were flat. And I mean depressingly so. Many in a stereotypical bimbo kind of way.
Now, the title...
It's the name of one of the short stories that involved Maya, the one character who also showed up in the stories "Dark Matter," and "Grendel's Mother." These three stories covered three different time periods in Maya's life, so her character did grow. I can't say that I liked Maya, but she was funny.
At one point Maya drank almost two bottle of wine solo. The description of her waking up the next morning had me laughing. "She had a crick in her neck, her tongue felt like it had grown fur, and she thought she might have low-grade brain damage from listening to Grandpa Jones all night." Grandpa Jones being an obscure musician whose song she downloaded and listened to repeatedly.
Maya also coined some terms with her dark humor. She used the phrase "come facts" for the random bits of trivia that men presented her with after sex. Her rationale for come facts was "Something about the brain being swept clean by sexual pleasure and then in the moment of regeneration spawning a fact that the man then rolled over and relayed to the woman." Come facts were dropped throughout the "Dark Matter" story and served to enlighten Maya about her own choices about men.
The title is not accurate for describing the overall tone of this collection.
Many of the women were not actually single. But many of them had the mindset of a single woman. Lots of affairs, so if you're not okay with reading stories that portray adultery, then you should probably skip this one.
Many of the women share a narcissistic quality where they see themselves as special and deserving and fascinating people. And of course, no one else was as interesting as they were. Carefree? Maybe free to care just about themselves.
And mellow? Tired and tedious to the point of almost being inert would be a better descriptor. Most of the women sounded the same. Oh, poor me in my middle class life carrying on an affair even more dull than my marriage. Very few of these women did anything of actual interest to me. Many of them did very little.
The story that truly offended me was "The Rhett Butlers," where an adult narrator looked back on her high school affair with her history teacher. Really? I have worked with so many dedicated male teachers that this cliche just irritates me on every level. Heiny went as far as having the teacher take the student to a seedy motel just outside of town.
So why three stars? Well, there were three stories that I did enjoy.
"That Dance You Do" focused on a frazzled mom's activities on the day of her son's 8th birthday preparing for his party. The clincher for me? The story was told in second person narration. That almost never happens! And Heiny pulled it off masterfully in this glimpse into the life of a woman who dearly loved her son, but felt rushed and judged by the world around her. I'm child-free, but even I read this story as if I were the mother. This narration gave me a snapshot of the pressures mothers must feel. And stories that promote empathy are stories I can get behind.
I read "Cranberry Relish" as a delicious criticism of our prevalent use of social media and technology. I saw two camps of characters: one with mature demeanors and solid names, and then the majority of morons with cartoon names.
The main character Josie met her lover Billy on Facebook. Billy had a new lover Paisley, who he met on Twitter. Josie had a habit of making fun of people's names. From Billy's new lover Paisley, which Josie deemed an unfortunate name, to her neighbor Maricella, who Josie referred to as Chicken Pox. Oh, that's because Josie thought Maricella was so close to varicella. Way to be culturally sensitive! And this criticism coming from a person whose name is most famously associated with Pussycats.
The few actual adults had names that sounded mature. Like Maricella. Sure, her home was a haven for the neighborhood's teenagers. But she volunteered as a Friend of the Library, and organized participation in a soup kitchen. Maricella was present in her life in a way that Josie was not. Josie kept fantasizing and focusing on her unrealistic expectations and was surprised when she was disappointed. Josie, who was easy to despise, presented as a cautionary tale.
"Thoughts of a Bridesmaid" followed the bridesmaid Fern through various wedding preparations for her friend Haley, the bride. At first glance, this story seemed stereotypical of female friendship. Haley was the pretty one and Fern was the smart one.
The structure of the story appealed to me. The story began when Haley met Fern at the airport and ended just as Fern was about to walk down the aisle. Within 16 pages, Heiny presented 28 scenarios where Fern commented on the nature of Haley's relationships with men, Haley's character, and their friendship. And Fern figured out that although she and Haley knew each other well from being college roommates, they had very little in common now.
I found this story to be the one I related best to. Back in my twenties, I had been that "close friend" who had to maneuver through 28 scenarios leading up to a wedding. And then realizing that the bride really wasn't that great of a friend. Heiny captured the awkwardness of that discovery. At least from my perspective.
All of the stories did read quite quickly. Breezy even. I just wish the overall theme and characters had more substance.