I just finished Emma Straub's debut book, a collection of short stories called Other People We Married. Overall, I was impressed. Below are my thoughts on each story (copied and pasted from updates posted while reading the book):
"Some People Must Really Fall In Love" -- my favorite in the collection so far. A 27-years-old college professor falls in love with one of her teenage students, and she tries dealing with this by going on a blind date with a man of appropriate age. I have no fault with this story, aside from wishing it was a little longer. (But that could be said of all these tales, and really, it's a good sign when the reader is left wanting more.) 5/5
"Rosemary" -- A lonely housewife consults a pet psychic in hopes of finding her lost cat. As a cat lover, I enjoyed this story but it feels more like a sketch for a short story than a fully formed tale. It's not bad, but Straub could have done a bit more with it. 3/5
"A Modern Map of Palm Springs" -- Two sisters who aren't very close try vacationing in Palm Springs together. One sister is successful with a husband and children, and the other is a less-wealthy stand-up comedian. Straub really shows off her dialogue skills in this one, and the sisters are perhaps the most fleshed-out characters seen in this collection so far. 5/5
"Pearls" -- This story is interesting if only because it explores romantic experimentation between two best friends while on a trip to the beach. Franny Gold, one of the girls in this story, appears later on in the title story and is much more developed there. Here, the girls are interesting, but Straub doesn't really flesh them or their situation out enough to make the reader really care. Still, the description and dialogue in this story is top-notch, so I'll give it a 2.5/5.
"Abraham's Enchanted Forest" - I loved this story. Essentially, this one is about the daughter of a man, Abraham, who dresses as Walt Whitman and does readings at book fairs and libraries when he isn't running the small amusement park (i.e., Abraham's Enchanted Forest) behind the family's home. This one is a little wacky and crazy imaginative, and it wouldn't be out of place in a Joe Hill story collection. 5/5
"Fly-Over State" - A couple moves from NYC to Wisconsin and has to get used to small town life. Straub's commentary on the way small communities of people work is what really makes this story extraordinary, as well as the way she sets the reader up to think things about certain characters -- only to turn those judgements on their heads by the story's end. One of the longer stories in OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED, it's an intriguing tale and one that is definitely worth a re-read. 5/5
"Other People We Married" - This one is an examination of a failing marriage. Franny from "Pearls" makes another appearance here, and this time she's grown up with a husband, a baby boy, and a gay best friend. These four take a trip to the beach where she and her husband get into a vicious fight, and things are made awkward when he calls her gay best friend a faggot. To be honest, I liked this story but a lot of the characters' actions were a bit wonky. I get what Straub is trying to say -- sometimes, we are closer to our friends than our spouse, and without friends life isn't much fun -- but she could have said it so much better. Still, it's a good story -- just not the best here. 3.5/5
"Puttanesca" - An interesting, but flawed, look at a widow and widower attempting to move on past their deceased spouses by dating. The Rome setting is fun and interesting, but these characters feel a bit shallow and vapid to me. 3.5/5
"Marjorie and the Birds" - This is a much better look at widowship. Marjorie, an older woman trying to get over the death of her husband, takes up bird-watching and even joins a bird-watching group. Marjorie is one of my favorite characters in this entire collection, and I was rooting for her by the story's end. 5/5
"Orient Point" - The shortest story in this collection, "Orient Point" is largely ineffectual simply because it says nothing Straub hasn't said better elsewhere. Like a few of the other stories, it's about two people who don't really love each other anymore going on a trip somewhere, and while that works in the other tales, here it just feels tired and played out. 1/5
"Mowhawk" - This story closes the book on Franny from "Pearls" and the title story, and in this one she and her husband, Jim, are taking their young son to camp and musing on what it will be like with no distractions at home -- just spending time with each other. They have doubts because their relationship has always been shaky. Straub's cutting insight into what makes relationships tick is what sets this story off. 5/5
"Hot Springs Eternal" - Like a few of the previous story, this collection's closer features a couple going on a road-trip and trying to solve their problems. This one is different, however, because the couple is gay, and I must say the guys -- Teddy and Richard -- are both so well-drawn and interesting that I can immediately conjur up images of what they look and act like in my head. It's perhaps the most successful meditation on human relationships and interactions with one another in this book. 5/5
Wow. What a collection. In these twelve stories, Straub manages to successfully do what most authors try and fail to do over entire careers -- take a long and meaningful look at human relationships while retaining total readability. Not all of these stories are winners, but a good majority are. All authors aren't perfect coming out of the gate, but Straub has proven herself to be up to the challenge of telling an interesting story with intelligence, quirkiness, and humor -- which is no small feat. Her only shortcomings are occasional lack of characterization (which is made all the more obvious when lacking characters are compared to some of the extraordinary people that populate these pages) and the habit of writing premature endings -- i.e., finishing stories seemingly at random and just when the reader becomes emotionally invested in the characters and their circumstances. I understand the writing of short stories is a constricted art form, but short stories also require at least some sort of resolution -- something almost all of these stories lack. Thus, I felt I had to dock a star. Despite those small problems, Other People We Married is a fine read and I have Straub's two full-length novels waiting for me on my TBR shelf.