We all have our things we never tire of, things that burrow inside us and stay, things we can’t get enough of and continue to revisit, such is the nature of their hold. Dark chocolate. Urban Cowboy. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”Â The old skirt with rickrack trim. That song. I’ve just added Emma Straub‘s collection to my personal list. No wonder The Millions placed it on their radar for 2011: it’s an unforgettable treat. In fact, the instant I finished Other People We Married I flipped back to page one, eager to fall back into this magnificent array of narratives. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
Readers like me who first encountered Straub’s talent in Fly-Over State, released by Flatmancrooked’s book division in the fall of 2009, will be delighted to see her long short story about a fish-out-of-water (read: out-of-New York City) couple and their unusual if unsettling neighbor reprinted here along with its road-tripping companion, ‘Hot Springs Eternal’Â, and ten charming new stories. Spoiler alert: This is not a book driven by major high-stakes drama. Plot points are few; moments, however, are many. Â Nuance is everything. Straub’s natural wit and razor-sharp eye are what make these tales of want and loss and heartache so lasting. Like Salinger, she loves her characters, all of whom want love (who doesn’t?) or at the very least, to be understood. Alas, the landscape is not always conducive to acceptance, much less change. With the slightest hand, Straub delivers the bitter with the sweet (and by sweet I mean comical) in a manner that’s both affecting and deeply effective. As one of her characters puts it, “Stories don’t have to have morals to have ends.”Â That’s true here. Like life, nothing is tied up in ribbon. Still, a touch of hope often remains.
“Some People Must Really Fall in Love”Â kicks things off. Â Amy, a young writing instructor, pines for a significantly younger student. Sad and awkward as Amy feels wearing makeup at an academic mixer, inside her stale classroom, squeezed into a shared office space, rife with longing as she may be, she retains a sense of humor. Straub’s observations are spot-on; the result, while often hilarious, is never mean. On a disastrous blind date, Amy seeks refuge in the restaurant’s bathroom, only to find a pack of short-skirted coeds fawning over themselves in the mirror: “Girls that pretty didn’t have bladders, it turned out.”Â
Although the bulk of these stories take place outside the Tri-State Area the collection crackles with a whip-smart New York sensibility. Set in Brooklyn “a land of parks, post-natal yoga, beauty editors, and pet psychics”, “Rosemary” addresses the ambivalence of motherhood after a baby is born, a cat disappears, and a life once known becomes unfamiliar. “A Map of Modern Palm Springs”Â accurately portrays the strain between sisters, leaving the reader on edge. Details speak volumes. As the older sister Abigail strips down in their hotel room, ugly comparisons ensue:
Her nipples were darker than mine, and pointed toward the ground. Her stomach was bigger, too, and protruded out from her body, almost like when she was pregnant, a full swooping belly that started at her pubic hair. There was a red indented line going all the way around her waist from her underwear.
Then there are the Franny stories. (How I love this Franny; I could read an entire novel of Franny.) We first meet her in “Pearls”, the lovably naive Jewish pal to Jackie, archetypal Wasp, as she joins her college roommate’s family on a trip to the Breakers. They are in Florida. They eat. They swim. They get dolled up. Romance builds at a perfect pace. Â Straub misses nothing. After kissing, “their chins were red, as though they’d been mining their pores for blackheads.”Â Franny reappears in the title story, “Other People We Married,” now a new mother with an emotionally limited husband and a gay best friend named Charles who accompanies them to Martha’s Vineyard. The situation, as you may surmise, is hardly peachy. Franny’s bright light dwindles, her name shortens and hardens to Fran, and years later we catch up with her in “Mohawk”Â on the dull rainy day that she and Jim drop their eight-year-old son at sleepover camp and confront the reality â€“ and likely end â€“ of their marriage:
It was as though they’d both been replaced by actors, a man and a woman who were choosing their roles anew. Jim looked at his wife and saw her familiar face, the curve of her cheeks and the exclamation point of her chin. She could have been sitting across from anyone.
Try as they do to fit in, Straub’s characters remain outsiders. Greta, the teenage protagonist of “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” is torn between her desire to reinvent herself and break free, and the pull of her larger-than-life father, who does Walt Whitman impressions at high schools when he’s not running his Enchanted Forest, a hokey touristy roadside attraction where “a tree stump looked enough like a miniature castle to label it as such, but you’d still have to squint and maybe put in some windows and turrets in your head.”Â Meanwhile, Laura, the widow in “Puttanesca,” toddles along in a replacement romance years after her beloved husband’s death, acting the dutiful part of girlfriend, traveling to Rome, wining and dining and accepting an exorbitant gift, and otherwise feeling like the title of the story. (Puttanesca means whore.)
She was two-timing herself, covering her discarded artichoke leaves with fresher ones, still crisp from the frying oil. John wouldn’t say that he minded, couldn’t, but she knew, and that was bad enough.
Both stories are emotional favorites.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Straub’s work is its effortlessness. Despite her language and prose style â€“ both of which are lovely â€“ this balanced collection possesses the unique quality of feeling somehow unwritten, as if the stories were born by themselves. I almost forgot I was reading, that’s how immersed I was, how well Straub connects, and how easy she makes it all feel, which we know is incredibly difficult.
Word on the street is she’s working on a novel: I cannot wait.
Other People We Married, out in February 2011, is available for pre-order now from FiveChapters Books.
Sara Lippmann is a writer in Brooklyn.