Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewed by Christina

Full Title: My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro

: 2008

It's about: Jeffrey Eugenides (who is a favorite of mine, if you haven't noticed) collected a bunch of short stories about love. This is it.

I thought: Well. Since I pretty much think Mr. Eugenides is Midas, I had high hopes for this collection. Seeing so many famous stories in the table of contents ("The Lady with the Little Dog", "The Dead", "Spring in Fialta", "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") made me even more eager to read it. And then the inclusion of "A Rose for Emily" banished any concern that it would be a cheery happy Valentine's Day-ish book.

I did enjoy revisiting those classics, as well as discovering new authors, like Deborah Eisenberg and George Saunders. The collection also gave me a chance to ponder the idea of a "love story," and whether it's possible for a good one to have a happy ending. The unifying idea, presented in the introduction, comes from two ancient Roman poems: Catallus 2 and Catallus 3. In the first, the speaker complains that his girl Lesbia's pet sparrow always comes between them. In the second, he laments that the sparrow has died and now Lesbia is overcome with sadness and therefore she is in no mood for lovin'. Eugenides argues that all love stories can be seen through the lens of these poems. Lovers are kept apart literally and/or metaphorically by symbolic sparrows and/or by the deaths of those sparrows. I loved looking for live and dead sparrows in each of these stories.

The stories themselves are quite varied- gay love, straight love, young love, old love, doomed love, charmed love (but mostly doomed). The sparrow idea gives the collection unity, and the writing itself is excellent throughout. But still, there were a couple of stories that I DESPISED. I shall name them here, so that if you come upon them you can run away: "Red Rose, White Rose" by Eileen Chang, and "Innocence" by Harold Brodkey. Both are long and boring and feature detestable sexist protagonists. Don't say I didn't warn you. But even in those cases, the style really is above reproach. If you want to take shelter in 600 pages of excellent yet varied writing, I wholeheartedly recommend My Mistress's Sparrow.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: I started reading this around Valentine's Day, thinking it would be appropriate. It's really not a bunch of prototypical romantic stories, though, so there's no reason to wait until next February to pick it up.

Warnings: lots of swears, lots of graphic sex scenes (including a 20-pager! Wowza!)

Favorite excerpts: I'd like to quote pretty much the entire introduction, but I'll try to limit myself. Here's one favorite part-
"It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer."

And from "Some Other, Better Otto"-
"Why did he need so many things in his life, Otto wondered; why did all these things have to be so special? Special, beautiful plates; special, beautiful furniture; special, beautiful everything. And all that specialness, it occurred to him, intended only to ensure that no one- especially himself- could possibly underestimate his value. Yet it actually served to illustrate how corroded he was, how threadbare his native resources, how impoverished his discourse with everything that lived and was human."

What I'm reading next: Empire Falls by Richard Russo (for the Dead End Follies book club!)