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My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead:
Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro


"  Read these stories…not to confirm the brutal realities of love, but to experience its many variegated, compensatory pleasures….I offer this book 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. "

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this book to expect tales of courtly love where fainthearted heroes woo fair ladies. The only knights, serfs and vassals to be found in this collection are the allegorical ones in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Jeffrey Eugenides explains the origin of the title in his introduction. It’s taken from poems by Catullus about Lesbia and her pet sparrow, which she dotes upon to the exclusion of her admirer, even after its death. As Eugenides puts it, “Things were bad with the sparrow around. They’re bad with the sparrow gone….In each of these twenty-six love stories, either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.” He insists he has chosen ‘love stories’ rather than ‘stories about love’. I won’t dispute this, but they certainly aren’t formulaic, romantic fiction. There are story-like stories with conventional plot arcs, but also more sinuous, nuanced creations. Although they span many cultures and over a hundred years in their writing, most have a contemporary relevance with characters behaving, thinking and feeling in ways that would be recognisable today.

With any anthology it’s fascinating to muse about the authors included. Here are some big hitters of short fiction: Chekhov, Carver, Grace Paley, Guy de Maupassant and Alice Munro. James Joyce’s The Dead is included in the US version of this collection but not, unfortunately, the UK edition. There are well-known names more famous for their longer fiction: William Faulkner, Nabokov, Milan Kundera and William Trevor, but there are also short story writers whose names I didn’t recognize, such as Eileen Chang, Robert Musil and George Saunders.

The stories predominantly concern heterosexual love between couples, even if the characters are not monogomous. Notable exceptions to this are Some Other, Better Otto by Deborah Eisenberg which features a gay male couple, two young lesbians are the subject of Something That Needs Nothing by Miranda July and Maupassant’s Mouche is the tale of five lusty rowers who love a single ‘rough sketch of a woman’. Some stories seem to me to be more about sex, lust, desire or infatuation than ‘love’ per se, but perhaps that’s my own narrow value judgement. In the opening story, First Love and Other Sorrows, by Harold Brodkey, youthful love springs in the Spring, as eternal as hope. A woman in the street is overheard speaking of some unknown ailment, but it seems an apt description of love, as often represented in this book: “It’s not a bad pain…but it persists.”

There’s gruesome love, with David Bezmozgis’s post-pornographic-pubescent Natasha and William Faulkner’s Emily who keeps her dead love upstairs for decades. There’s far less in the way of happy, ecstatic, untroubled joyful love, but perhaps that’s a territory it’s hard to capture and sustain successfully in a story? (Or in life?) There is certainly tender love to be found in Grace Paley’s deceptively spacious Love, in which a married couple share their memories. In Yours, by Mary Robison, the bitter twist remakes assumptions about an old man with a much younger wife and an unspoken devotion to each other shines through as they carve pumpkins for Halloween. There is also passion in this collection, but it sometimes emerges in strange guises, as in Dirty Wedding by Denis Johnson, when “She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother.” Or in Harold Brodkey’s erotic story, Innocence, where “her body was strong, was stone, smooth stone and wet-satin paper bags and snaky webs, thin and alive, made of woven snakes that lived, thrown over the stone.” There’s humour too. In How To Be An Other Woman, by Lorrie Moore, being a mistress is described as “like having a book out from the library” – love on loan.

So, should you buy this book for your Valentine? Well, proceeds go towards funding a free youth writing program in the United States, which is a point in its favour. It also contains a handy space at the front to inscribe your own name and that of your true love if you’re giving it as a gift. But if you fall for this piece of marketing then I suggest you present the book to a lover who enjoys reading thought-provoking short stories rather than offering it in desperation as a last-minute, panic-purchased alternative to extortion-racket-red roses or a fancy box of chocs. And what if you love not? Well, keep it to read yourself; you may or may not be converted.

Pauline Masurel loves, and lives in, Bath. She is the new Writer in Residence at Bloom & Curll Bookshop in Bristol. Her story Anybody’s Moon appears in the February issue at 971MENU.com and she once wrote an article entitled Oh Google, How Do I Love Thee?.









PublisherHarper Press

Publication Date: Jan 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First anthology?Yes

Anthology website: MySpace

Editor: Jeffrey Eugenides

Editor bio: Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and is a novelist and short story writer. He is the author of Virgin Suicides and of Middlesex, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize

Authors: Isaac Babel,  Harold Brodkey, David Bezmozgis, Raymond Carver, Eileen Chang, Anton Chekhov, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, William Faulkner, Richard Ford, David Gates, James Joyce, Danis Johnson, Miranda July, Milan Kundera, Bernard Malamud, Guy de Maupassant, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Robert Musil Vladimir Nabokov, Grace Paley, Mary Robison, George Saunders, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Trevor.

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