I first read about Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow, on Swistle’s blog. Swistle made me curious: so many people don’t enjoy short stories, and (or) don’t like reading about affairs, but here is a book of short stories, almost all of which are about women and infidelity of one sort or another. What could break down those barriers?
For one thing, the book is light; we are not talking about Anna Karenina here. I read it in an afternoon, chuckling and nodding. I didn’t want it to end — I’d have liked more stories — and they were such a pleasure. Heiny’s writing is witty and sharp without looking like she’s showing off. She doesn’t write one-liners, so it’s hard to quote her: it’s more like whole situations that are quietly funny. In the story “Blue Heron Bridge,” a pastor has semi-accidentally been asked to stay indefinitely with the heroine’s family, and his sheltered attitudes provide comic relief from the heartache of Nina’s affair:
The whole family called it Friendbook now. Just the way they called the bread knife the “special knife” and their iPhones “portaphones.” It was like having a two-year-old in the house again, except one that wasn’t cute or related to them.
So the tone of the stories is light. But the women in these stories are swimming in emotionally deep waters: love, loss, heartache. They are cheating on husbands or boyfriends, sometimes with married men, sometimes for high stakes, sometimes with children involved in the picture, or other deeply invested family members: in-laws, sisters, best friends. These women are mostly confident and professional. They’re the calm ones, the women people count on to put things right. But who knows how to navigate this kind of thing? “Blue Heron Bridge” again:
On the lawn, the girls squealed and laughed and raced through the sprinkler again. Jane wore a pale blue swimsuit, Chloe a lime-green one , and their arms and legs were as smooth and tanned and unblemished as a bolt of brown velvet.
It was a perfect evening, really, except that Nina felt as if she might start sobbing and never stop.
The thematic echoes of the stories give them some coherence, but don’t make them feel repetitive; these are all different situations and perspectives, because that’s the way real life is. Heiny moves from a teenager having an affair with her (revolting) American History teacher (“The Rhett Butlers”) to a middle-aged woman sitting with her ex and remembering why the affair ended (“Cranberry Relish.”) Heiny’s obvious interest in her characters makes these stories human. My own favorite stories were the ones in which adultery took a back seat to female friendship. “The Dive Bar” and “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid” are about the fierce, sometimes complicated love between longtime friends, and the ways that can swirl and eddy when those friends’ romances go pear-shaped.
If there’s one really great thing I can say about this book, it’s that it reminded me of Laurie Colwin, one of my very favorite authors. Colwin dealt with adultery too, sometimes (Family Happiness is probably my favorite of her novels), and with something of the same achingly light, poignant touch. Colwin is better. But Heiny is good.