I can resist no longer!!! I love shots (alcoholic and otherwise), so the 100 Shots of Short reading challenge--hosted by RobAroundBooks--is right up my alley. This perpetual challenge urges readers to read 100 short stories in their own sweet time. No pressure, no due dates, just a whole bunch of short story love.
While I was known to resist short stories in my younger days because they felt "unfinished," (or maybe because I was forced to read them for school) in the last few years they have grown close to my heart. Because I consistently teach Literature-Based Research courses at the college, I'm always revisiting my favorite short stories, discovering new ones, and I have a significant pile of great short story collections on my stacks. Oddly, whenever I revisit those old faves for teaching purposes, I rarely discuss them here. Shame! Must put an end to that nasty exclusion.
I'm smack dab in the middle of Lauren Groff's collection, Delicate Edible Birds, so it's only fair that I start with my favorite story from the collection thus far. "L. Debard and Aliette" is the title, and it's a stunning story. What I'm finding so lovely about Groff's collection is that she rarely takes the easy way out. She takes her characters to places the reader doesn't expect--sometimes uncomfortably so--but the stories are always poetic and feel fully realized and "finished."
Most of the female protagonists in Groff's stories are delicate (edible birds)...emotionally, physically, intellectually or all of the above. In the case of 16 year old Aliette Huber, a rich man's daughter with legs damaged by what I suspect is polio, she is delicate physically, though that's about the extent of her weakness. Her father hires former world-class swimmer and struggling poet, L. Debard, to give his daughter swimming lessons. Because Aliette is largely bound to her bed by the weakness and pain in her legs she spends hours a day lost in books, and she has a special fondness for poetry. She appreciates L. Debard's work, has read his first book (largely ignored by the literary world) and can recite the poems after only one reading.
Though her father and nurse treat her like a young child, Aliette is mischievous and savvy. She soon begins to seduce L. Debard during their daily lessons. While the easy way out would've been to have Aliette's father or nurse discover the affair and squelch it with great emotional turmoil for the couple, Groff drags the telling out a great deal more. I won't reveal the intricate details, but as the strength in Aliette's legs increases, so does the urgency and depth of Aliette and L.'s relationship. They actually manage to foster a full-blown relationship, which I never expected when I started reading the story. While the story is ultimately tragic in its own way, it's wonderfully written and full of surprises.
Part of what makes this story so sparkly and memorable is the setting. L. and Aliette live through the flu epidemic of 1918. Groff manages to create a great contrast between the richness and opulence of the story's opening with the dark days of the flu epidemic. L. and Aliette begin their swimming lessons in the Amsterdam Hotel natatorium, which Groff describes this way:
It is a lovely pool of green tile, gold-leaf tendrils growing down the sides and a bold heliotrope of yellow tile covering the bottom. The walls and ceiling are sky blue. They cannot use it during guest hours and must swim either in the early morning or at night.
Both, insists L., hating to take so much money from Mr. Huber for so little work. He comes early for the first lesson, marveling at the beautiful warmth and crystal water. He leaps from the sauna to the pool, laughing to himself. His moustache wilts in the heat.
However, as the flu epidemic moves into the city the tone of the story grows far darker.
The plague hits New York like a tight fist. Trains rolling into the boroughs stop in their tracks when engineers die at the controls. After 851 New Yorkers die in one day, a man is attacked for spitting on the streets.
Mr. Huber sends his six servants away, and they are forbidden to return until the end of the plague. Three out of them won't return at all. Mr. Huber, Aliette, Rosalind, and L. remain. They seal the windows, and Mr. Huber uses his new telephone to order the groceries. They buy their food in cans, which they boil before opening, and their mail is baked piping hot in the oven before they read it.
I love Groff's descriptions which are often as poetic and surprising as her plots. She can make the exceptionally ugly parts of tragedy and human nature bearable and interesting with her words.
I should also mention that "L. Debard and Aliette" is a reimaged telling of Abelard and Heloise. I have absolutely no familiarity with the story so those references are lost on me, but I think I'll be doing a bit of Googling to get caught up!
If you pick up any short story collections this year, Delicate Edible Birds is my first recommendation. Watch for reviews of more stories coming soon.