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Let's Call the
Whole Thing Off
Love Quarrels from Anton Chekhov to ZZ Packer 

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds)

" He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her."

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

The editors have helpfully divided these literary love quarrels into four categories. There are arguments from the dawn of a relationship in We’ve Only Just Begun, followed by the habitual disputes of Just Another Day, and the beginning of the end in The Best Part of Breaking Up. Then there are those quarrels which can’t help coming back and screaming "and another thing…" at their ex, long after it’s dignified to do so. These appear in the final section, titled No Regrets? 

These stories are, by turns, funny, ironic, exasperating and poignant. They include love quarrels that are private and public, heated and subdued, playful and serious, homosexual and heterosexual, marital and adulterous. There are quarrels which take place in sickness and in health and there’s even the odd love-triangle thrown in for good measure. The editors have deliberately chosen to only feature complete short stories in this prose anthology and not to include extracts of novels. This means that each argument can be seen in the entirety of the context given to it by the author, rather than as a combatative set-piece taken from a longer work. 

Jhumpa Lahiri’s story This Blessed House reminds the reader that love can be born from the tiniest of co-incidences:, “…a revolving platter of spareribs and egg rolls and chicken wings, which, they concurred, all tasted the same. They had concurred too on their adolescent but still persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels, and their dislike for the sitar, and later Twinkle confessed that she was charmed by the way Sanjeev had dutifully refilled her teacup during their conversation.”  Whereas, by comparison, Jackie Kay’s character, Hilary, believes that “You need a bit of difference to feel real passion.” 

But differences can also feed disputes. In He and I by Natalia Ginzburg, “He likes tagliatelle, lamb, cherries, red wine. I like minestrone, bread soup, omelettes, green vegetables.” In Lydia Davis’s delightfully succinct micro-fiction Disagreement, the moot point is whether a screen door should be left open or closed to minimise the number of flies in the room. Harold Brodkey writes, in The Quarrel: “Duncan enjoyed Pernod. It made me sick. Duncan hated talking to people. I talked to everyone. My French vocabulary was better than Duncan’s. His pronunciation was better than mine. I became terribly adept at not irritating Duncan before breakfast. I couldn’t see that he apreciated any of this, or that he responded with any similar awareness.” Perhaps one of the most curious tales in this book is Frances Gapper’s which hinges on relationships between people of different colours…..in this case, the colours Pink and Blue

The stories in this collection encapsulate everything ranging from the plain argumentative individuals who would dispute anything for the sake of it, even the merits of a hat, like the newly-wed’s in Dorothy Parker’s Here We Are, to those disagreements sparked purely by lack of respect, as in Katherine Mansfield’s Mr and Mrs Dove, where the heroine declares, “I couldn’t possibly marry a man I laughed at.” 

The Joyce Carol Oates story The Quarrel is a welcome glimpse of a couple whose “love for each other had glowed like phosphorescent fire on the surfaces of their bodies, making them objects of beauty (and perhaps terror) in others’ eyes, now the fire seemed to have retreated…invisible, wholly interior, residing in the marrow of their bones. They rarely made love now, and they rarely quarreled now, and S could not have said which he missed more.” She captures the way in which an argument can lie dormant, “the terrible quarrel still smoldered underground like a peat fire and they dared not stir it, provoke it, give it air….” Yet, somehow despite the terrible nature of this fire when it rages they manage to damp the dispute down and never argue again. 

The book certainly isn’t unremittingly gloomy and grumpy. Jackie Kay’s wisely titled story You Go When You Can No Longer Stay made me smile with the opening line, “It’s not so much that we are splitting up that is really worrying me, it is the fact that she keeps quoting Martin Amis.” The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most charmingly optimistic stories in the book, and an antidote to the constant squabbling dictated by the book’s theme. In this story, Missie May and Joe seem to have a genuinely solid relationship that survives even an act of adultery and where their mock quarrels are the cement that holds their relationship in place. It’s also one of the rare stories in this book where the reader gets a sense of warmth from a couple "making up" after a fight. 

Spending too much reading time in the company of a host of disagreeing (and often disagreeable) characters might seem like a depressing prospect. As Dorothy Parker’s new bride says, “…all of those people getting married all the time; and so many of them, everything spoils on account of fighting and everything.” But sometimes there’s a positive message to be gleaned from even the bleakest of situations. The two final stories in the book, The Fishing-boat Picture by Alan Sillitoe and Wanted by Grace Paley, exemplify this. Both lead to the same conclusion, which is….if you love someone (or even if you don’t) then stop bickering, take some “appropriate action” and do something about it.

Pauline Masurel lives in South West England and enjoys gratuitously disputing the truth by writing fiction. Her micro-story Discovering a Comet is the title piece in a recent collection from Leaf Books. She’s never quarrelled with her fiancé and had hoped this book might teach her how to do so.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"   

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead" 


Publication Date: Feb 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First anthology?No

Editors: Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Woods

Editor bios: Kasia Boddy teaches at University College London and is author of Boxing: A Cultural HistoryAli Smith, writes novels and short stories. She won the Whitbread prize in 2005 and has twice been shortlisted for both Orange and Booker prizes. Her partner, Sarah Wood, is a filmmaker and curator.

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What other reviewers thought:


The Guardian