When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs, and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one.
I mean … that’s pretty great, right? This story, “Happily Ever After,” was, in the end, one of the less memorable stories in the collection, but being a lesser story in a collection like this not much of a criticism. The five stories and one novella all involve characters trying to navigate how their self-perception does and does not match up against the way others perceive them or, indeed, how they actually live. So there’s a story about a college student being excoriated for a wearing a Confederate flag bikini when a photo of it is posted on Instagram, an artist making a project out of apologizing to all the women he’s wronged, and a photographer who feels out of place at a friend’s wedding because she suspects the bride is jealous of her friendship with the groom. Often, the situation at the center of the story draws the main character into their memories, of a disabled sister or a lost friendship, perhaps, something that didn’t turn out the way that wanted or a loss that informs how they see the world today.
These stories are rich in their explorations of the many layers of people’s lives. And they’re rich in memorable moments and images. Two women photographed going down a waterslide, a woman left with a baby on a bus, and the image that the narrator in the title novella had to close her eyes and merely listen to.
Probably my favorite story was “Anything Could Disappear,” about a young woman on a bus to New York who gets left with an abandoned baby who has no identifying information. Somehow, watching her cobble together an impossible life with some success filled me with hope, as did the story’s conclusion, when she realized how impossible that life was.
And, of course, there’s the final novella, which makes up about half the book. The main character in the novella works for a government agency tasked with correcting incorrect historical information as they find it, usually by telling a more complete version of the story that includes the more racist aspects of history that many don’t want to look at. The work is, naturally, controversial, and not all of the agency employees agree on how to go about it. In fact, much of the story centers on a conflict between the narrator and a childhood friend with very different attitudes toward the work. Both of them are Black women, and their professional differences are rooted in different (and evolving) ideas about how to live in the world as a Black woman. And the ending …
A lot happens in these stories, but they are, at heart, character studies. They’ve beautifully crafted, with care for who these people are, whether they are at their best or at their worst, likable or not. They’re great.