Curtis Sittenfeld’s bestselling third novel, American Wife, was based on the life of Laura Bush. The book opens with its heroine lying in bed in the White House, wondering: how did I go from that – a quietly agnostic, Democrat-registered, school librarian in Wisconsin – to this: the wife of a born-again, Iraq-invading, Republican president? The characters in Sittenfeld’s excellent debut collection of stories have less dramatic and – to bystanders if not to themselves – less surprising trajectories. Many of them, though, are asking the same questions. How did I get here? Have I changed on the inside? How do other people see me now?
These questions lead them into variously fraught or intractable-seeming situations. In “The Prairie Wife”, a suburban Minnesotan mother can’t stop herself from hate-following the famous lifestyle blogger with whom she had a fling two decades ago. In “Gender Studies”, another story that first appeared in the New Yorker, a recently separated professor has a one-night stand with her shuttle-bus driver.
The first story, “The Nominee”, recalls American Wife in a different way: its narrator is an unnamed but otherwise undisguised double of Hillary Clinton, musing on the evolution of her decades-long relationship with a journalist as she has gone from president’s wife to secretary of state to the country’s first female presidential candidate.
The collection’s title is an inversion of a game played by two married acquaintances. “I’ll think it, you say it,” Graham says one day to Julie, who needs no further encouragement to launch a series of snide takes on the couple whose 20th anniversary party they are attending: he’s a bore, her Spanx underwear “must be killing her”, neither of them is actually happy in their marriage. It’s a trick that works for both of them: Julie can say what she wants while remaining technically blameless (she’s just a mouthpiece, right?) and Graham never has to commit himself.
They play for a year, and first the game makes Julie see herself the way she used to, before she moved from Chicago to a wealthy part of Texas: as a “big-boobed, curly-haired, high-spirited Jewish girl” (no longer the case, thanks to breast reduction surgery, hair-straightening, three children and an Episcopalian husband). Then it makes her fall in love with Graham, with predictably uncomfortable consequences.
Since her debut, Prep (2005), which followed a shy Midwesterner through her years at an elite East Coast boarding school, Sittenfeld has specialised in reserved, watchful narrators who want desperately to fit in, even as they pass judgement on those around them. Her characters marvel at the ease with which others seem to inhabit the world; meanwhile they’re anticipating embarrassment, endlessly hedging and second-guessing themselves. During the professor’s encounter with her driver, “it crosses her mind to say ‘I love you’ to Luke. That is, in such a situation she can understand why a person would”. In another story, a woman thinks back to her feelings as a young mother: “It wasn’t that I looked down on parents who put their kids in day-care, it wasn’t that I disapproved of them, or at least if I did disapprove, I knew enough to be embarrassed by my disapproval.”
Even in the stories narrated in the third person, Sittenfeld never allows us into the consciousness of any characters other than her protagonists. She’s interested in the expectations and values of social worlds, but specifically as they are navigated by a single individual. Our access to their minds isn’t total, though: often praised for her psychological and social acuity, Sittenfeld is also a careful plotter, withholding facts and details until they are surprising enough to change the way we read a story, and to make us question our own expectations and values.
For the most part, the collection’s characters are privileged, conventional and white, living in Midwestern or Southern states. We see a number of overwhelmed mothers, but these women are very different from the feminist writer-mothers recognisable from recent works by Jenny Offill, Elena Ferrante and Elisa Albert: Sittenfeld’s women are mourning the loss of romance and adventure from their lives, not worrying about how to make art or money; some seem unaware that a woman might wish to split childcare equally with her husband.
The betrayals and upheavals in these stories aren’t life-shattering, but their relatively small scale allows Sittenfeld to concentrate on emotional nuance, as well as the shifting inequalities of gender and class that shape even the smallest social interactions. A newly married woman earns 20 times as much as her husband, but when they go out for dinner with other couples, he’s always the one who puts down his credit card. “Gender Studies”, which offers a depiction of academic life so grimly recognisable that several times I had to stop reading to put my hands over my face, also shows how expected courtship rituals are disrupted by the disparity in education and class between the no-longer-quite-young professor and her twenty-something driver.
If social politics dominates these stories, national politics nibbles at the edges of them. The professor firmly tells her Trump-curious driver that there’s “no way” Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate. This story is the collection’s second, following “The Nominee”; by its last, Trump’s recent inauguration is making a middle-aged man reconsider the sexism that had him named senior prefect at his high school at the expense of a female classmate. Sittenfeld’s characters are generationally and temperamentally far from second-wave feminism, but there’s no one better than her at showing how the personal is political.
You Think It, I’ll Say It
Doubleday, 238pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right