Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: "Fresh Complaint" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Ever since Jeffrey Eugenides burst on to the literary scene in the early 1990s with The Virgin Suicides, he's proven himself to be an expert commentator on the foibles of the human condition, sex, adolescence, relationships, family dynamics, and, at times, the often-mundane challenges of everyday life. He further cemented that reputation with Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, so when I heard that he'd finally be coming out with a short story collection, I was excited to see if he'd be able to capture this same kind of magic in short form.

The verdict? His stories, some of which were written as early as 1996, definitely demonstrate his talent for creating memorable characters and vivid dialogue. Some have a dreamier quality, while others are more moving and poignant. The challenge is, not all of the stories are that interesting, so while you can savor Eugenides' storytelling ability, you might find yourself wondering what the point was in some cases.

Among my favorites in the collection: "Baster," about a woman in her 40s who decides it's time to use a somewhat unorthodox way of getting pregnant, and how that decision affects a former boyfriend; "Complainers," which chronicles the decades-long relationship between two women, and how one responds when the other's infirmities start impacting her independence and her spirit; "Air Mail," the story of a young man's observations as he searches for enlightenment while traveling the world; "Find the Bad Guy," about a man trying to rebuild his marriage; and the title story, about a young girl's desire to escape her immigrant family's customs, so she makes an impetuous decision which turns a British physicist's life upside down.

At their best, Eugenides draws you into the stories from their very first sentence, creating tension and empathetic characters whose lives and situations you become invested in. When the stories didn't work for me, they just didn't quite capture my attention (one seemed like an excerpt from Middlesex or an early outtake), or I didn't quite understand what he was trying to say. Fortunately the good stories outnumbered the weaker ones, but some of the weaker ones made the collection feel a little bogged down.

Eugenides is one of those authors who tends to take a while between novels. I hope that since Fresh Complaint was mostly a collection of previously written material, we won't have to wait much longer for a new book. (The Marriage Plot was released in 2011.) Still, these stories are a nice way to tide you over until the next book comes along, if you're one of those who could use a Eugenides fix.

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