Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Dinner Party and Other Stories" by Joshua Ferris

Sometimes you love every book an author writes, and other times you have a completely different reaction to every one of their books. Joshua Ferris definitely falls into the latter category for me—Then We Came to the End left me bemused yet ambivalent; I absolutely couldn't get into To Rise at a Decent Hour; and I really enjoyed The Unnamed.

Despite that mixed track record, I still really enjoy the way he writes, so I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of his first story collection, The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Overall, I really enjoyed it—he kept some of the quirks which occasionally throw me in his writing in check, and these stories are compulsively readable. They're fascinating, some are really packed with emotion, some are a little bizarre, and you just want to know how Ferris will tie things up.

Many of the 11 stories in this collection seem fairly innocuous at first, with characters you think you've seen before—a husband dreading another dinner party with his wife's oldest friend and her husband; the retiree who laments growing old alone; a man who is falling to pieces because he believes his wife has left him. But as you delve deeper into these stories, you discover that nothing is quite what it seems, and which gives each story a little bit of an unexpected kick. Sometimes that doesn't quite work, but for the most part, it really does.

Only one story in the collection really didn't excite me, but my favorites included: "The Pilot," in which an insecure writer gets invited to the party of a famous writer he met once, but he wonders if she meant to invite him, and he struggles with whether to go; "The Valetudinarian," about an elderly man struggling with growing old alone, whose life is literally changed by the arrival of an intriguing gift from an estranged friend; "More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope," which tells of a man's exploits in his office after hours; "The Breeze," about a woman who nearly comes undone with the possibilities which arrive with an unexpected spring breeze; "The Stepchild," in which an actor seeks out a woman he met one night, in order to counter his despair that his wife has left him; and the title story, which tells of a couple awaiting friends to come over for a dinner party, despite the fact that the husband is utterly over them.

There were many times in these seemingly simple stories that I was wowed by Ferris' prose. One such example comes from "The Stepchild":
And what you are growing here, and there, and over there, are little moments, and the memories make a life that can't be taken away from you by anyone or anything, not other people's fickleness, not even death. In the long run, you know, that's better than bowls of dried flowers, or whatever.
I don't believe that every person who has been successful at writing novels is as successful writing stories, and vice versa. But I felt that Ferris' storytelling ability was on great display in The Dinner Party and Other Stories. These were stories which really resonated, and worked for me in ways that his novels haven't always succeeded. And even if you've never read any of his books but you're a short story fan, this is a collection worth exploring.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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