When was the last time you
read Chekov, Faulkner, Joyce, and Nabokov
all in one week? Maybe in college. But
certainly not Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver,
Grace Paley, and Denis Johnson, too? If it
all sounds like a discordant, overwhelming
combination of writers, I'm here to tell you
it's decidedly not. Like a great mixtape,
My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead is a
conceptually coherent and artfully conceived
gathering of pieces, curated with deep
passion for its parts, but also with a
concern for how it resonates as a whole.
Jeffrey Eugenides picks both the orthodox
(Chekov's The Lady With the Little Dog
and Raymond Carver's What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love) and the
unexpected (How to Be An Other
Woman by Lorrie Moore; Red Rose,
White Rose by Eileen Chang; and
Something That Needs Nothing by Miranda
July) and spans over a century in his
selections, making this not only a great
collection of love stories, but more
importantly, one of the greatest anthologies
I've ever read. It's also worth noting that
the book is beautifully designed and bound,
and all proceeds go directly to fund the
free youth-writing programs offered by 826
Chicago (see sidebar).
Surprisingly, My Mistress's Sparrow is a fluid read. Eugenides takes great care with the order of these 27 stories, considering how the style, plot, tenor, and gravity of each will play against the ones that follow and precede it. The table of contents will make readers wonder how one could possibly follow up James Joyce's The Dead with a gritty story by Denis Johnson, but reading them in their intended order erases any doubt. Following Nabokov's lushly musical prose in Spring in Fialta ("amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece dreams of seashells", or "a melancholy brigand hawking local lollipops, elaborate-looking things with a lunar gloss") is Lorrie Moore's clean, searing wit in How to Be An Other Woman ("When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.") The worlds don't blend, the language doesn't marry or meld, and it's that careful sequencing, a deep breath between each story, that allows the reader to look up for a moment and then dive in to the next one. The result is exhilarating and eye-opening, as Eugenides invites us to read authors we might not pick up otherwise, and to read them in a new context, making even the oldest stories new again. Chekov fans aren't typically cruising The New Yorker for a new story by Miranda July and vice-versa but chances are by the end of this book you'll have acquired several new additions to your old favorites on the shelf. (I bought three books after reading the first three stories.)
With his artful editing, Eugenides has conquered one of the biggest problems of the short story collection. Reading anthologies can often be a dust-collecting, bedside-lingering process. Usually grouped by time period, nationality, publication, or award, they often serve primarily as a reference, introduction, or catalog, and editors are careful to make their personalities invisible. This makes them useful, reliable, and enjoyable for their parts, but unremarkable as a whole. My Mistress's Sparrow is exactly the opposite. It's not intended as a comprehensive survey of the greatest love stories of all time. Nor is it a treatise on love, as Eugenides warns in his excellent introduction. ("Please keep in mind: my subject here isn't love. My subject is the love story.") Instead, these are the selections of a reader; an impassioned, expert, committed, and discriminating reader; one who remembers that the best kind of reading comes from picking favorites.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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