Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: "Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories" by Christine Schutt

It's ironic that one of the reasons I never used to like short stories, the fact that I had only a short time to build relationships with the characters, is one of the things I like most now. When stories are done right, it's amazing how complex characters can be, how complicated their journeys, and how deeply you can feel about them, in just a small number of pages.

I didn't really feel that way about Christine Schutt's new collection, Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories. She's definitely a talented writer, and her use of imagery is tremendously poetic. But I found her writing style a bit evasive, so it was difficult for me to understand the characters' motivations, what was happening to them and why, and, at times, whether or not I should sympathize with them.

In the title story, a brother and a sister with a rather complicated (and perhaps inappropriately close) relationship come together after the death of the sister's much-older husband, once a renowned comedian. As often happens in this type of relationship, her husband's adult children quickly ensure she is left with virtually nothing, so she needs to figure out where her life went wrong, and how to get it back on the right path, while ensuring her brother is nearby. (Or at least I think that's what the story was trying to say, because it meandered between their childhood, her relationship with her husband, an incident that happened after he died, and present time, sometime without any real signal as to when the scene or reminiscence took place.)

In "The Hedges," an unlikable and unhappy couple goes on vacation with their sick and cranky toddler. Very little is told about them except that they are unhappy with each other yet they still are trying to enjoy their vacation despite the demands of their child, and so they employ numerous coping strategies. The entire story foreshadows an incident, so when it occurs, you're unsure of how to feel, and given what happened, I felt badly that I didn't care enough about the characters to care.

"Species of Special Concern" tells of a man and his ill wife, and the man who seems to be infatuated with her, and definitely feels like he would be a better and more responsive (and responsible) husband to her. Yet the story is so short, there is not enough time to understand why the man thinks that way beyond jealousy, and whether the man cares for his wife, or whether the besotted man has reason to be covetous.

As the collection winds to a close, many of the stories get even shorter, so I found it even more difficult to get hold of them emotionally. I had a great deal of hope for this collection, but it just didn't work for me, so I hope it does for others. It's certainly possible I missed something in reading this book.

NetGalley and Grove Atlantic provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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