Short-story collections can spark different expectations. Some readers want incendiary fireworks. Others want variety, evidence of a writer stretching muscles, extending reach. Others want a consistent vision, subtle variations on a common theme.
Rare is the story collection that can manage to satisfy all three demands. Lauren Groff's "Delicate Edible Birds" manages this rare feat with aplomb.
Groff scored the literary debut novelist's ultimate dream when her "The Monsters of Templeton" soared onto national best-seller lists last year. Her fictionalized version of life in Cooperstown, N.Y. —- her hometown —- earned strong sales and critical raves.
"Delicate Edible Birds" should add more luster to the growing reputation of this 30-year-old graduate of Amherst College with a master of fine arts from the University of Wisconsin. In a polished collection of nine stories, Groff demonstrates an enviable eye for telling detail and a sure hand with compelling storytelling.
The most striking attribute of "Delicate Edible Birds" is its dazzling variety. Groff ranges across decades and continents in her stories, juggles settings as disparate as her fictionalized hometown to an unnamed Latin American dictatorship to war-torn France as the Nazis advance.
Several of Groff's stories are standouts that resonate well past their last page.
"L. DeBard and Alliette," included in the current edition of "Best American Short Stories," chronicles the unlikely romance between a teen woman of wealth stricken with polio and her much older swimming instructor, a famous former Olympic champion who also is a poet. This tragic tale of love and loss has elements of the classic saga of Abelard and Heloise, yet is set in the waning days of World War I when the scourge of deadly influenza circles the planet.
Their scandalous love affair produces a child, but their differing circumstances spell doom for the couple, which Groff captures with bittersweet precision: "Their kiss is long and hungry. If they knew how often they would remember it, for how many years it would be their dearest memory, this kiss would last for hours. But it ends, and she climbs out, wincing with pain, and he watches her walk away, so lovely, the feather of her hat bouncing."
Groff's "Lucky Chow Fun," winner of a Pushcart Prize, returns to the fictional town of Templeton and examines the shock and aftershocks in the picturesque burg when the local Chinese eatery turns out to be the cover for a whorehouse. One of the Chinese working girls there dies when there is a gas leak and she is locked in her room; a media firestorm results.
The scandal is viewed through the eyes of a frustrated 17-year-old high school student named Lollie who swims on the boys' varsity team, buries herself in myths and folklore, yearns for college yet also feels "the niggling terror of what would happen to my mother and sister when I left them, their sad dinners, my sister talking only of birds, my mother talking only of the crap day she had at school, neither heard by the other, neither listening."
Just one story in Groff's inaugural collection is a significant disappointment. "Fugue" centers on the handful of residents of a once-grand hotel being renovated in a fading spa town. Groff's arching ambition for the story results in too many details withheld in hopes of adding mystery, too many characters and their too complex personal stories, too much confusing artifice.
Groff's powers of description are in evidence throughout this collection: "the bachelor's funk of his apartment," "dove-gray dawn," "the slow caramel drawl of their words," "the man had the personality of a sheet of waxed paper."
And finally there is this evocative start of one paragraph: "The rainy season comes and goes; our beautiful young lovers are gone in the war and we must content ourselves with books turned stale with humidity, phonographs playing the same fatigued songs."
Groff's thematic specialty —- where her perceptive vision is focused —- turns out to be turning-point moments, often for women characters —- turning-point moments sometimes not recognized as that until it is too late.
Short-story collections usually fight a tough uphill slog for recognition. Groff's well-oiled version comes equipped with four-wheel drive.
"Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff; Voice; 304 pages; $23.95
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