Each of the women who inhabit your new collection of stories, Always Happy Hour (2017), is different in her own small way – and yet all of them seem to merge into each other in the end.
Most of the stories are told in first-person narration by a woman in her late-twenties or mid-thirties. In each story, the main narrative begins somewhere in the middle of a series of events, and soon splits into two strands that run in opposite directions: past and future are told in parallel, and end up flowing into one another in some undefined but decisive moment.
The protagonists are usually struggling with an early form of midlife crisis: most of the women in these stories are underpaid PhD students who have a bleak idea of what they want to do with their careers; they are usually overweight or suffer from an eating disorder, are often self-medicating, doing drugs or alcohol, while at the same time trying to cope with bad relationships. They all have invariably made poor choices and bad decisions, and none of them are really living the life they wanted to have when they were younger.
They cling to their partners as their last hope of salvation: the protagonists are submissive, pliable, all-accepting women; they suffer from low self-esteem, and often see themselves through the unflattering eyes of their partners; your protagonists feel as if they are about to lose their men, and they are frequently comparing themselves with other more fortunate women.
In the title story, Always Happy Hour, the narrator, a college teacher, begins a relationship with a divorced man who has a kid. She and her boyfriend are both underemployed. To make matters worse, they are heavy drinkers – it’s always happy hour for them, albeit with a sour aftertaste. “And later he came up to my bedroom and got on his knees and lifted my dress and I made him go home because already I loved him, because already I knew it was the kind of love where you are so afraid they’re going to leave you give them no other choice.”
Running along similar lines, the narrator of At One Time This Was The Longest Covered Walkway In The World – also involved with a divorced man who has a kid – is struggling to keep a relationship doomed to failure. “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It only means I can’t say it”, replies her lover when she confesses her feelings.
In Instructions, a young student is taking care of her boyfriend’s apartment while he is traveling. As she reads the instructions he left for her, she struggles with their different views on life – and seems to anticipate the great storms still ahead of them as a couple. The differences that both bridge together and tear apart loved ones – this is also a theme explored in First Class, where a woman travels with her wealthy friend, even though they seem to be unable to stand each other for very long.
In one of my favourite stories, Big Bad Love, the narrator works at a shelter for orphans and children victim of parental abuse. She chooses one of the most difficult girls, Diamond, to be her protegee – while also becoming addicted on this child’s strong medication. “I (…) wonder if Diamond will remember that someone loved her once (…).”
The stories flow into one another, like a tangle of lines which – we gradually discover – are part of the same fabric. These stories could easily be read as chapters of the same narrative. The differences can be deceptive: all those women at the end seem to be one and the same woman; each story, a snap of her life in different moments.
And I guess here lies both the strength and the fragility of your collection: if it is true that the narrative voice is so consistent throughout your stories, it is also true that this voice sounds always the same, repetitious, impervious to variations of tone or theme. Much as the protagonists themselves are trapped within the choices they made, assailed by loneliness or defeat; we, as readers, also feel trapped within one and the same narrative, without any possibility of escaping.
I wonder if any of these stories could have later grown on you into a novel. I wonder if, in this case, I would have felt less trapped, more enticed. I wonder if you yourself would have been less trapped in one and the same voice; if there would have been more space for playing. You manage to leave us with a small burning after each story; I wonder if a novel in this hard voice could have turned itself ablaze.
Have you ever wondered about it?
“She decided a long time ago she didn’t want to be a careful person, that she didn’t want to live her life constantly worrying about what other people thought of her. Of course she does worry, she does nothing but worry, and all her lack of care amounts to is that she offends people constantly and tests them with her inappropriateness and expects them to love her for it.”
– Mary Miller, Always Happy Hour
“She thinks about the things that have hurt her and she thinks about beauty and how little of it she sees in even beautiful things. She wonders if people who’ve been hurt more see more beauty. She wonders how a few strung-together words can seem so meaningful when she doesn’t believe them at all.”
– Mary Miller, Always Happy Hour
About the book
- Liveright, W. W. Norton & Company, 256 p.. Goodreads
- Expected Publication Date: January 10, 2017
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- An advance copy of this book was kindly sent to me by W. W. Norton & Company for review.