Monday, July 16, 2018

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is one of those hit-or-miss authors for me, where I really like some of her books, but I wouldn't call her a favorite author because she's let me down too many times. Cases in point: while PREP and THE MAN OF MY DREAMS are among my favorite books, AMERICAN WIFE and SISTERLAND were both crushing disappointments that I could hardly stand to get through.

With that in mind, I approached YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT with hopeful caution. "Please don't let me down again," I thought.

YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT consists of ten very different stories that look at women as if they were specimens in a Petri dish. Have you ever looked at a Petri dish? They can be pretty disgusting, as fascinating as they are, and you might not like what you see in them, even if you can't quite bring yourself to look away. Such it is with the women in these short stories.

Gender Studies: ☆☆☆

Initially, I gave this four stars, but I think I was being over-generous. It's a weird story about a gender studies professor who think she's lost her driver's license, so she calls up her cab driver (who revealed himself to be a Trump supporter during their drive) and asks him to look for it. He pretends he's found it but says he'll only give it back if she buys him a drink (red flag). They end up hitting it off and having a sexual encounter of sorts, but it quickly sours. Deeper meaning ensues.

I liked this one initially because it shows how people are rarely as black and white as we think they are, but the more I thought about it, the more I disliked how the woman was portrayed as being at least partially in the wrong. That dude was a manipulative creep. F him, and his skeevy tactics.

The World Has Many Butterflies: ☆☆½

Probably my least favorite in the collection, although any story that involves cheating is going to earn my side-eye. This story is about two married friends of the opposite sex who like to play this game where they casually sh*t-talk mutual acquaintances. The woman in the relationship builds what they have up as being something more, and it turns into a meditation on extramarital affairs.

I thought this one was too unlikely, and the heroine was too unlikable and immature. The most interesting thing about this short story is the title (and if you're interested, this is the story from which the collection itself draws its title; it's the name of the sh*t-talking game the couple plays).

Vox Clamantis in Deserto: ☆☆½

Another story I didn't really like all that much upon further reflection. Probably because it feels like a washed-out, shorter version of PREP. Set in Dartmouth, it's about a student who becomes weirdly fixated on one of her classmates and her boyfriend. It's got the class anxiety and slumming around of PREP, but without the character depth, and I couldn't really get into it, even though I'd have liked to.

Bad Latch: ☆☆☆

Another weak story, Bad Latch is about mothers one-upping one another, and addresses the bias that natural breast-feeding and natural birthing are better, as well as the ugly side of motherhood that involves fear, anxiety, and the desire to conform to societal expectations. I didn't really like this one much better than the previous two, but I'm rounding up a bit because the topics that it mentions are so relevant and because all too often, motherhood is written about as the be-all, end-all of womanhood.

Plausible Deniability: ☆☆☆½

This story is also about cheating. It is about two brothers - one of them is married, one of them is unmarried. The married brother confides to his unmarried brother a desire to cheat on his wife, and is always venting about her. His unmarried brother is unsympathetic and urges him not to cheat. But the married brother doesn't know that his unmarried brother and his own wife are writing to one another.

I thought this was an interesting story, and it does subtly bring up the difference between physical and emotional cheating, and how both are equally damaging to a relationship.

A Regular Couple: ☆☆☆☆½

I think A Regular Couple is the story I related to most out of this collection. Two couples end up meeting at this resort, and it turns out the wives knew each other in high school. One of them was the stereotypical pretty "mean girl," and the other was an awkward loser. Now, in middle-age, the tables have flipped, and the mean girl is kind of washed out and unsuccessful and the awkward one is a rich and successful lawyer. However, the meeting brings back all of the awkward girl's social neuroses.

I recently had my ten-year reunion so I found this story interesting, because it's amazing how some people can stay the same while still changing so much. The awkward girl couldn't let go of her high school resentment and expects that the mean girl feels the same. It ends up being much more interesting than the typical "nerd's revenge" fantasy that I was expecting, and I liked that.

Off the Record: ☆☆☆☆

This was another story that I enjoyed a lot. A single mom journalist with a newborn baby is interviewing a vivacious young starlet whose career is on the rise. An ordinary interview quickly becomes juicy and potentially devastating for the starlet, and the journalist is desperately trying to jot everything down while keeping the starlet placated enough that she won't remember that she's "on the record," even as she's fielding calls from her nanny claiming that her baby is at death's door.

This is one of those "devil's choice" scenarios, where the journalist is essentially forced to choose between her baby and a potentially career-pivoting moment. The tension was really well done, and I liked the twisted ending. These darker, more unhappy stories really appeal to me for some reason (what does that say about me?); Sittenfeld is really good at writing unlikable characters.

The Prairie Wife: ☆☆☆☆½

After A Regular Couple, this was my second-favorite story. This is about a woman who likes to spite-watch a YouTube influencer, while damning her as a hypocrite and fantasizing about ruining her career. At first, you think it might be jealous but then you found out it's because the influencer has branded herself as a farm-to-table, 1950s ideal of an evangelical rustic Stepford Wife, when the woman in question knows firsthand that the influencer is a lesbian because they hooked up when they were young. The ending to this story was great, and was much more positive than I expected.

Volunteers Are Shining Stars: ☆☆☆☆

This story has an almost Patricia Highsmith vibe to it. The heroine of this book volunteers at a shelter for low-income women and their children. She also has OCD, of which she is in denial about, and while her compulsions may be obvious from the get-go, her obsessions are somewhat sinister - especially when they cause her to fixate on one of the other volunteers: could she be a sociopath?

Do-Over: ☆☆☆

Another short story that mentions Trump? Nooooo. This story has a male protagonist. Trump's "win" has made him question one of his own wins, when he was elected student council president in high school. He ends up reconnecting with the woman he "beat," seeking her out to apologize.

Much to his dismay, it ends up going badly. She gives him a royal dressing down while calling him out on his privilege, and he has literally no good response to anything she says, apart from that old fall-back about her not being ladylike or attractive. It ends up being a pretty grim portrayal of how men view women - especially successful, dominant women - and how privilege can be blinding.

For the most part, I liked this collection. There were no truly awful stories in it, and I liked that Sittenfeld actually took on some pretty challenging and controversial topics. She writes grit and grunge well, and I think it's neat that you can like her characters even as they make you cringe.

That said, it's a somewhat mixed array of stories and I think it's a mistake to put the strongest stories in the middle, where they will be forgotten, leading with the weakest stories in the bunch, and then sandwiching the whole affair with two Trump-related tales that are kind of downers. The arrangement could have been much better, to showcase the strongest stories, leaving the weakest towards the end.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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