This slim volume of short stories punches far above its weight class as it examines the lives of loosely connected characters in and around the turn of 21st century America. The opening story Dinner Conversation is one of the strongest, revolving around three couples out to dinner and the weight of expectations felt by the narrator Callie, who feels the pressure from all sides to look and act a certain way in order to be the perfect wife and mother. Tho it’s set in 1998, it feels deeply contemporary, a microcosm of all the brewing emotions that would set off a more mainstream female anger decades later.
The next few stories travel back to the 70s, to examine the childhoods and adolescences of young girls and their difficult, damaged parents. This part felt a little less successful, if only because it covers well-trod territory without adding anything particularly new to the conversation. The collection picks up again with Happily Ever After, which modernizes the fairy tale and recasts the would-be heroine as the villain in a refreshing take on the genre. Shadows And Partially Lit Faces continues this theme of subversion by centering Callie’s dire husband: he still sucks, but it’s hard not to empathize with his longing for space and something more, even if he’s satisfying both desires in the most obnoxious ways possible. Lucky, the examination of a couple trying to keep their marriage alive while caring for a terminally ill child, is both deeply empathetic and highly unusual in its depiction of flawed people falling apart over one of our society’s most difficult subjects to discuss.
Another of my favorite stories here comes next in the form of The Devil Makes Three (which, imo, is an unfortunate title for a really great story.) Revolving around Iris, a strictly observant Jewish woman in the 1990s who sneaks onto her son’s PC to use AOL, it’s a fascinating portrait of both a woman and her marriage as she and her husband try to reconcile their religious faith with modern life. I honestly hadn’t known about mikvehs or the extent of niddah before this story, and was thoroughly engrossed both by the subject and by Corie Adjmi’s luminous prose describing both Iris’ feelings and circumstances.
That’s How It Was With Howie was a good look at the crappy parts of being a divorced father, and while I enjoyed Tick Tock’s portrayal of chronic illness, I did think the miscarriage was presented extremely lightly. I suppose some women just have physically easy miscarriages, so to speak, especially if they’re caught very early on? The book’s closing story Drowning Girl is the most contemporary, and completes the volume’s thematic circle well, tho I 100% clutched my pearls at anyone doing what the protagonist did to a Roy Lichtenstein.
Overall, this was an accomplished, thoughtful debut collection that showcases the versatility of a growing talent in American letters. For being a quick read, it felt surprisingly dense. The effortless incorporation of Jewish culture and religion lent the collection a greater level of complexity than its contemporaries; with summer taking hold in the northern hemisphere, it’s the perfect beach read for people who don’t want to disengage their hearts and brains entirely. It’ll be very interesting to see where Ms Adjmi goes next in her career: I think she has a debut novel coming soon, too? In the meantime
Life And Other Shortcomings by Corie Adjmi was published August 4 2020 by She Writes Press and is available from all good booksellers, including