Happy Sunday to you all! It’s a cold, frosty morning here in North Carolina. We live in an older house that doesn’t heat very evenly, but that gives us an excuse to light a fire and hibernate on the couch. Most of yesterday was spent in this position, watching Foyle’s War. If you are in need of an excellent British mystery series (set during WWII), I can heartily recommend that one.
This morning I woke up and found there were still live coals in the fireplace, so I added some more wood and voila, another cozy morning that I’ve just spent finishing a book of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater. I really loved this book and thought it would be worth sharing.
I’d never heard of Julie Orringer before, but it’s a name I’m going to be looking out for in the future. Normally, I struggle with short stories because they require you to start something new every twenty-pages or so. I have a bad habit of resisting new stories (and new places, new foods, new anything really). I hesitate because I don’t trust that I will get interested or enjoy it.
I never had that problem with Orringer’s work. Each story is exceedingly well written. It’s good, clean prose that never gets in the way of the plot or the characters; a great example for students (and aspiring writers) on how to be descriptive without getting purple and obnoxious.
The stories generally center around young women in transitional moments of their life, but it’s hard to say exactly why each story drew me in so easily. Nothing happened that was too extreme (baring the first story!) and none of the characters were “quirky.” And even though each story was set in very different circumstances and locations (Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, lake-side, suburban-side), I found them very relatable, perhaps because the narrators were all young women or girls. They were believable. I’d make similar choices in their circumstances.
However, I will warn you that while the first story in the collection is probably the best, it is also the most disturbing. I randomly started the book on the second story (based on my mother’s recommendation), continued on from there, and only later went back to the first story. Frankly, if I had started with the first story, I’m not sure I would have felt brave enough to continue on with the others. I would have worried they all would be dark (they weren’t). I had the same problem years ago with Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. If you’re organizing the order of short stories in a collection, personally I think you should not start with one that is so agonizingly heartbreaking. Tuck that away for later.
My only other critique was that some of the stories in the collection progressed in a fairly predictable manner. Character, conflict, and setting were always strong, but occasionally the plot, while perfectly fine, didn’t surprise me. A few of the stories bucked this trend and I think they particularly stand out as the strongest in the book (Pilgrims, What We Save, Care, Stations of the Cross, and maybe Note to Sixth Grade Self).
Another minor issue I had was that some of the characters started having conversations to wrap up the story that I doubt anyone would ever have in real life. Fighting siblings and friends, in my experience, never talk out the issue. They just move apart or move on.
In any case, I really loved these and I hope to read more from Orringer. If you’re in the mood for meaningful, yet page-turning short stories, check out How to Breathe Underwater.