The Short Version: Short stories of almost too-short construction, featuring simple stories from people’s lives and the moments at which things seem about to bend or break – but always stopping short of that actual pivot. A dinner party that could potentially dissolve several marriages, a woman brought to Hong Kong to choose her friend’s wife, a mother/college administrator trying to juggle the two – that sort of thing.
The Review: I’m sort of at a loss here. I don’t know how else to express my bewilderment at this collection or, more specifically, the notices it has been receiving. Because – and forgive me but I must be blunt – these stories are, for the most part, not very good.
Or, no, that’s wrong. They’re well-crafted and show a certain flair for academically interesting language… but they do nothing for me. How about that? In fact, I don’t think they really do anything at all: only one of these stories could be said to be, in the strictest sense, a story – that is, it has a beginning and an end. The majority of the stories in this collection are instead vignettes, moments sliced out of a life and delivered up in washed-out color. It was annoying but an acceptable quirk when, at the end of the first story, the narrator delivers a “this is what will happen, but then I only knew X” moment – but when that becomes the trope on which these stories are almost entirely all founded… I’m sorry, but that’s lazy storytelling.
Especially because Ms. Lee doesn’t appear to be a lazy storyteller. There are some well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and even first-halves-of-stories here. It’s just a shame they all end rather abruptly and – for the most part – with that sensation of suddenly realizing you’ve been listening to a reflection the whole time, not a present-tense story. It’s really just intensely irritating.
I said earlier that there was something “academically interesting” about the language here – and I now realize that that’s where my issue with these stories can truly be found: these stories feel like they’re out of a creative writing class. Quelle surprise, the author got her MFA from Iowa. And while I’ve read plenty of excellent writers who have come out of the Iowa (or any other similarly prestigious) masters program for creative writing… these stories are the shining example of why a “training” in creative writing is a dangerous thing. These feel so artificially created – there’s not, to me, an ounce of actual life in these stories. They are instead academic exercises, the sort of thing that you write as a 19-year-old sophomore to try and impress your advisor. And that’s a great place to begin! We’ve all been there! But the idea is then to grow and develop as a writer, creating a voice and a sense of actually telling a story. Here, I get no sense of Lee’s voice other than that she’s overly reliant on the crafting of a particular moment in a life instead of just showing us the entire scope of it.
And maybe that’s her thing, I don’t know. But all of these stories, without exception, made me roll my eyes. Sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Rating: 1 out of 5. I didn’t overtly hate anything about this collection, nor did I find it lacked in any redeeming qualities. The writing is, I will say, at times quite good. But I did find myself just irritated by it, for reasons that I can’t entirely explain. It all was too, well, academic. There was a sense of pretension in these stories that I just couldn’t stomach – as though this is the sort of lofty writing Ms. Lee was taught and, ooh, ahh, isn’t it great? But for my money, I’d rather be actually engaged by the story at hand than impressed by how you’ve told it.