This review first appeared in The Same on March 28, 2018.
My freshman year of high school I crushed on a boy named T. After months of in-class flirting and meaningful looks, T. asked me to go to the movies with him one afternoon after school. My first date! I was thrilled. I don’t remember the movie or how it ended, because we kissed for most of the second hour. Pretty innocent stuff, but literally the most exciting thing that had happened to me at age fourteen.
School was out soon after that date and I spent the rest of May and most of June waiting for him to call me. The phone never rang but that didn’t stop me from building up an entire fantasy world in which he was on an extended vacation with his family—somewhere with no phones. I was certain that once school resumed, so would our budding romance. This is not what happened. What happened is he made fun of my hair to his friends when he bumped into me at Big Splash Water Park then walked away from me like I was nothing. The romance was over before it really began.
This painful memory is also the sharpest one I have of a time when my carefully tended inner fantasy world was gutted like a dead fish. The story I had concocted—that he was a nice person, that he really liked me—was nothing more than a sand castle washed away with the morning tide. I learned a hard lesson that day about what to do when the world I had pictured vanishes under the weight of someone else’s actions.
Characters in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It, learn this lesson too. And they learn how to move on, in tears, in joy, in resignation, and always in the knowledge that there are ways in this world that we will always, inevitably, be alone, whether in relationships or out of them. The women (and one man) of these stories are flawed, hopeful, lonely, observant women at their lives’ midpoints, navigating motherhood and marriage and professional success with sex and power and love. Taken together, the tautly written and multi-faceted story collection is a portrait of modern womanhood, albeit one within a bubble of affluence and comfort.
Misunderstandings abound, as Sittenfeld’s characters navigate the sticky mess of interpersonal relationships. While misunderstandings can be spun into comedy gold, a la the 1970s and 80s “Three’s Company,” Curtis Sittenfeld rends them heartbreaking instead. She exposes the essential, silly or delusional truths we tell ourselves, and the internal worlds we create and try to keep intact. What is life, really, but our internal voice spinning the narrative of our lives? If those inner worlds intersect with reality, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised, but more often than not, we are Julie in the story “The World Has Many Butterflies,” from which the larger collection draws its title. Julie’s marriage has lost its luster, and “for a stretch of several months, whenever Julie had sex with her husband, she pretended he was [her husband’s co-worker] Graham.” She and Graham had yet to share anything intimate other than a game they played at social engagements to which both couples were invited. At country clubs and dance recitals, they play I’ll Think It, You Say It, a game he initiates that allowed him to stand in silence while she dished and gossiped and judged the couples around them. The scene in which she confesses her love for him – at the Four Seasons Hotel – is painful and embarrassing, as he spells out in a “legalistic” manner that he was never romantically interested in her and that worse, she realized that she was never saying what he thought, that he was just listening. Her humiliation from the lunch is not quite over. Julie runs into Graham’s wife after their divorce at the Butterfly Center where their children are on a field trip. She learns that Graham had moved in with a co-worker named Beth Brenner, ten years younger, blond and svelte, in mergers and acquisitions. “How embarrassing, in light of the news about Beth Brenner, that Julie had imagined Graham might desire her forty-four-year-old self, even boob-lifted and hair-straightened…Beth Brenner offered rather convincing evidence that he’d said he was never romantically interested in her because he was never romantically interested in her.”
Part of Sittenfeld’s work is to trace how tenuous our connections to other humans, even those closest to each other, can be. And how commitments like marriage and parenthood are made in a thousand ways each day. In “A Regular Couple,” we join newlyweds Jason and Maggie on their honeymoon. Maggie, a successful attorney with a national reputation for defending a famous sports star in a rape case, and her public defender husband encounter one of Maggie’s high school frenemies, the then-popular girl Ashley Frye and her husband, also on their honeymoon. The conflict with Ashley Frye, decades-old, exacerbated by Maggie’s career choices, comes at a dance club, and causes Maggie to also spill her venom on Jason, who we learn is as much her trophy husband as Ashley is her husband Ed’s trophy wife. When Ashley finds Maggie’s sore spot and inserts the knife, Maggie’s response threatens her new marriage. Insisting that the sports star Billy Kendall “had raped the cocktail waitress” but also using a tone of voice that “she also didn’t really care,” Ashley’s comments goad Maggie into saying “As for Jason being by conscience, I’d say it’s more like I’m his gravy train.”
Sittenfeld wades into #MeToo territory in the final story, “Do-Over.” Told from the point of view of a good-looking, wealthy white male named Clay, we meet Sylvia McClellan, the woman he stole a student council prefect election (prefect, we are told, is a fancy boarding school name for president) a quarter of century ago. Readers of Sittenfeld’s debut novel Prep (Random House, 2005) will easily picture these characters in the dorms of Ault. The story opens up, appropriately, with Clay reassuring his fourteen-year-old daughter after the election of Donald Trump as president, crushing her hopes for the first female president. “Progress happens in fits and starts,” he texts his daughter, and we learn that that night he dreams of Sylvia. Four months later, he’s not surprised when out of the blue she emails him, wanting to meet for dinner. Clay is no Neanderthal, and gets why she may be calling, and this is exactly where Sittenfeld’s characterizations are so spot on. We can’t hate Clay for the white male privilege he’s benefited from, not just as a white male, but as a handsome, athletic one born to money and with little struggle ascended to success in his field. We don’t know what he does for a living, but investment banking or lawyering seem like the right fit.
Perhaps the recent election of Donald Trump spurred him to make the comment, as he avers, or maybe it is as a father of a girl about the same age Sylvia would’ve been at the time he stole the election, but he wades into an apology over dinner. “I guess we’ll never know the results of that runoff, but I’d be willing to bet I lost and you won. And even if it was a different time, even if I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan, what happened was completely sexist,” Clay says. It turns out, however, that this was not her intent for the dinner at all. She was following up on secret crush she’d had for him during that time, a crush that perhaps made her willing to go along with the plan where he assumed the prefect role and she became associate prefect just because he “had more experience.” Without ever knowing the actual outcome of the election. Sylvia, it turns out, never voted for herself in the election, a note that rings true to female readers taught that to do so would be “conceited or indecorous.”
It’s a nuanced version of #MeToo, lacking the gut punch of some of the stories passed around since the movement caught fire last October, but one that many women can relate to. It’s the story of women who have ingested messages of inferiority and people-pleasing so deeply that the acting this way has become ingrained. When the time comes to stand up, women like me fail sometimes. We don’t trust ourselves. It comes externally, and from inside our heads. How many ways, how deep is our desire to get along and be liked, how willing are we to suppress what we want for the good of the other. “I learned an important lesson from all that, which was to be my own advocate and if I came off as immodest, so be it? And you have to figure that out at some point, right? Or at least if you’re a woman, you do, or not a white man,” Sylvia tells Clay.
At any rate, it’s not why she called him. She is assailed with dissatisfaction in her own marriage, weary of seeing her husband Nelson filling his unemployed days with video games in the same track pants with orange stripes. Sylvia confesses to Clay that she cooked up the whole plan to meet him: “I came here to go on a date with you. You wouldn’t know it was a date, but I would,” she tells Clay. “I wasn’t hoping we’d end up in bed. For one thing, I don’t think I could live with the guilt, and for another childbirth wrecked my body.” Her awkward confession turns into date sabotage as she asks him if he’s ever had an anal fissure “as blasé as if she’s asking if he’s ever tasted coconut water” before telling him about her own caused by her daughter’s birth.
We feel Clay’s pain: he’s hardly the most sensitive man in the world, but he’s trying. He sits with Sylvia, he doesn’t bolt, even though “the narrowness of the margin of error allowed here, combined with the high likelihood of his screwing up—it reminds him of marriage counseling.” This is a particularly apt of the place that most men find themselves when discussing issues of gender inequality. Sittenfeld has chosen to tell this story from the man’s point of view, but still it is Sylvia whose voice shines. “There was this story I told myself, that growing up I’d been the awkward good girl, the responsible student, and I’d missed out socially but in the long term I’d come out ahead…But something came loose inside me, something got dislodged, and I am still that teenager,” Sylvia tells Clay.
The reader can take away lessons, too, that the ten stories in this collection provide a snapshot of modern womanhood that is more nuanced than proponents of gender equality may wish to acknowledge. Sittenfeld doesn’t tell stories with black-and-white morals or victories of right over wrong. She tells a quieter truth of a loneliness that can persist through marriage and motherhood and professional success. For women who thought they could have it all, the goal remains ever elusive.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Publishing Group, Apr 24, 2018