A short story is often treated like a stepping stone that grad students and lesser writers use to build their skills. Tell someone you wrote a book and you get congratulations; tell them you wrote a collection of short stories and they’ll ask you how your book is coming along. For most people, short stories are like grilled cheese sandwiches—basic kid food that you practice when you are learning so that you can build your skills for more important things.
You ever REALLY try to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Grilled cheese is almost perfect in its simplicity. Bread, cheese, butter and a little heat turn into melty, gooey goodness. Yet, those bad boys are not easy; mess up one part of the few steps and they’ll burn, the cheese won’t melt, the bread will too crunchy and you’ll tear up the roof of your mouth. And it’s not just lack of culinary skill that can jack up a grilled cheese sandwich. Try to get a gastronome to make you a grilled cheese and they’ll make you a masterpiece, with pear slices and ricotta or goat cheese and pesto calabrese. You’ll get something, but it won’t be a true grilled cheese—simple, genuine, straightforward.
This extended (and fairly tenuous) metaphor is to say that I think that, outside of literary circles and bibliophiles, short stories get a bum rap. These beauties are hard to craft and craft WELL; they either never come together or are dressed up lavishly to hide its shortcomings. Sometimes you’ll find a collection that contains writing so tight and basic, with stories that are easy and simple, you overlook how amazing they are. Moppets, meet Married Love: And Other Stories by Tessa Hadley.
From the publisher: Married Love is a masterful collection of short fiction from one of today’s most accomplished storytellers. These tales showcase the qualities for which Tessa Hadley has long been praised: her humor, warmth, and psychological acuity; her powerful, precise, and emotionally dense prose; her unflinching examinations of family relationships. Here are stories that range widely across generations and classes, exploring the private and public lives of unforgettable characters: a young girl who haunts the edges of her parents’ party; a wife released by the sudden death of her film-director husband; an eighteen-year-old who insists on marrying her music professor, only to find herself shut out from his secrets. In this stunning collection, Hadley evokes worlds that expand in the imagination far beyond the pages, capturing domestic dramas, generational sagas, wrenching love affairs and epiphanies, and distilling them to remarkable effect.
Married Love is full of those lovely slice of life stories that get under your skin and linger longer than you think they might. Hadley’s writing is very tight, you get the feeling that every word is carefully chosen because it’s the best one, not just because it shows off her MA. No wayward sentences or careless metaphors about grilled cheese here, no sir. The effect gives more weight to each story; a description of the way a young girl lies on the chest of a prospective suitor is integral to the plot, whereas in other collections it might be a throwaway paragraph. Haldey also only lets you in on a sliver of her character’s lives and these small moments say so much about the characters, in ways that a larger story wouldn’t. Nearly every piece of writing advice I’d read has some variation on Faulkner’s “Kill your darlings,” but Hadley doesn’t really do this. It’s as if she respects her darlings and only shows just as much as you need to know, never revealing more than is relevant. (Ah, so polite and so English, I love it…)
Hadley’s stories range in time period (she’s as comfortable in 1920 as she is in in modern day) and are set in Britain, which made my little Anglophile heart swoon at every mention of things such as vicars and Action Man. If you need things to HAPPEN in your stories, Married Love is probably not for you. There’s rarely a twist or major resolution in the end of the stories, but it’s the lack of full completion that makes these tales hang around in your mind long after you’ve put down the book. Did they get married after all? Did her son come back? Did they divorce, or continue on? These aren’t cliffhangers, but more like expansions on people-watching; you know part of the story, but not all. And that’s enough, because somehow you know WHO these people are, if not what happens to them.
I’m not a fan of giving away much about short story collections, so I won’t try to describe each story. However, I will say that my favorite is “Trojan Prince;” even though it doesn’t give much hint of being so, it turns out to be an incredibly romantic tale from a male perspective. There’s no harm in reading this in one sitting; sometimes short story collections are best read in spurts, but I think the stories vary so widely here that you won’t get bored. However, it’s perfect for the train or a car ride, each one is fairly succinct and well-paced.
I definitely recommend Married Love by Tessa Hadley and I plan on checking out her other books also. Being English, these should be read with a proper tea, but I don’t think she’ll mind if you chomp on a grilled cheese sandwich when doing it. (WHAT? I had to tie it together, you know you’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t.)