The Short Version: Pocket universes, ghosts, fairy folk, superheroes, an Egypt revival, boyfriends and Boyfriends – you’re entering the oddball world of Kelly Link, where the people have the same ordinary problems and concerns as we do… it’s just that their universe is far stranger than ours.
The Review: I loved Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. It stands as arguably the best short story collection I’ve ever read and I still think about a handful of those stories (esp. the title story) on a pretty regular basis. Her latest collection has garnered a lot of excitement over the course of the last year – seeing as it took her ten years to produce, I can understand the literary world’s clamor – but it turns out the magic doesn’t actually work every time.
The first story, “The Summer People”, felt immediately like the Link I met earlier this year. A young woman in North Carolina who takes care of a mysterious house up the hill full of an often-unseen group of… well, I think the best phrase is probably fairies, although Link pointedly doesn’t use that word. They’re the summer people and they bestow upon their caretakers and friends fun trinkets and helpful items now and then. The clockwork/mechanical animal toys, for example, are a delightfully Linkian invention, one that will stick around in my mind just like the Library from “Magic for Beginners”.
And as the collection goes on, it is good to see Link pushing out a little bit and trying to expand what it is she does. “I Can See Right Through You” and “The Lesson”, in particular, feel like they’re exploring rather serious and weighty issues of emotional connection and the supernatural takes a bit of a backseat. It’s not to say that it isn’t there (especially in that former story, which might be one of the best things to come out of the cultural blight that is those four Twilight films) but the story could exist without it and still land. In fact, there’s something interesting about taking the supernatural out of those stories and replaying them in your mind – as it shows that Link is as astute an observer of human nature as she is an inventor of oddball realities.
At the same time, the collection treads water a bit too often for my tastes. Some of the stories (including the aforementioned “The Lesson”) feel a little imbalanced in one way or another. “Secret Identity” provides a nice twist on the expected – the story of a young woman meeting up with her online paramour, having only ever encountered each other via an MMORPG… but their meet-up is to be at a hotel in New York City that’s currently playing host to a superhero convention and a dentist convention. It’s a fun setup but the story drifts a little bit, before coming home with a pretty expected ending. The same problem applies to “The New Boyfriend”: it starts with a great twist, where rich girls get Boyfriends instead of boyfriends (they’re synthetic android-esque humanoids that come in varieties of horror characters – vampire, werewolf, ghost) and one girl sets out to steal her friend’s latest model. But something felt lacking from the story – that same humanity that makes so many of the other stories pop seemed artificial here. The idea that started the story was a great one, but Link seemed to be searching for a way to bring it all together.
Even stories like “Valley of the Girls” and “Two Houses”, which were fleeter of foot, sometimes felt a little imbalanced. The former has a great idea that could’ve (as with many of Link’s best stories) spun out into a full novel – but instead of just clamoring for more, I was left feeling like I didn’t quite get the whole picture, like I was missing something that would’ve allowed me to enjoy the story more. And while “Two Houses” is an excellent riff on the “sit around the campfire telling scary stories” setting, it dropped one too many hints about the larger picture of the world and thus diluted the potency of the mounting terrors. Neither of these stories were bad – in fact, none of the stories in this collection are bad – but they just didn’t quite spark the same way that every single story in Magic for Beginners did.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Link’s magic is undeniable and her imagination is one of the most potent ever to grace our culture in any medium – but some of these stories list a little bit and float, as with Bunnatine (the main character of “Origin Story”), only a couple feet off the ground instead of soaring into the sky. Those tethers, whether intentional or not, are felt in this collection where they might not be in other circumstances simply because Link’s reputation (well-earned) is so tremendous. At the same time, stories like “The Summer People”, “I Can See Right Through You”, and “Two Houses” more than make up for any shortcomings in the other pieces. Link reliably gives us treasures, even if sometimes the magic has worn off in places.