Sunday, June 25, 2006

17. Instant Love

by Jami Attenberg

Last Thursday I eschewed my usual evening plans – which involve coming home, eating dinner, and either reading, watching tv, or working on GB, or a combination of the three, until the Daily Show comes on – and went to a reading at the Hideout. I’m always saying how I should go to more of these events that I post about, but I rarely do. Mostly it’s because during the week I like to savor the time I have at home. I like my routine and I always feel a little off when I alter it. Also, and I don’t know if I’m in the minority here but it sure seems like it, I hate the Hideout. I hate it. Well, maybe not it specifically, but I hate getting there. I hate taking the El to North Avenue and then waiting for the stupid #72 bus that only runs every half hour, if you’re lucky, to take me to Elston so I walk up three or so seemingly deserted blocks to this small tucked away house that’s really a bar. Even more, I hate coming back home. Making the trip in the light of early evening isn’t the problem, but when I have to make my way back after midnight? It’s not my favorite thing to do. I know its relative obscurity is the point, but I would be really happy if all the good readings started booking themselves at someplace a bit more accessible.

But I digress. I probably wouldn’t even have gone if I hadn’t gotten Jami Attenberg’s book in the mail. I’m always a little weirded out when I’m sent books to read or review. I have two reactions, in the following order: 1) Me? You want me to read your book? Why? 2) Free book! Whoo! So with the Hideout reading just a couple weeks away, I started right in on Instant Love.

This is going to sound like an insult within a compliment and I don’t mean it that way, but I really didn’t think I’d like Instant Love. It’s about women and love and women dealing with love and all that stuff about which so many authors try to say something original and just end up perpetuating bad stereotypes about female writers. I shouldn’t have thought that because I’ve come across plenty of books that are for women, by women (fuubuu?) that were fabulous! But old habits die hard, you know?

Instant Love follows three women, Holly and Maggie who are sisters and Sarah Lee who is a peripheral friend, and their trials with love during different periods of their lives. The book is a series of short stories that could very easily stand on their own, but work tremendously well when they’re collected in one volume. The first story, “The Perfect Triangle,” centers on a teenaged Holly and the boyfriend she loses to a “cooler” friend. Maybe the friend isn’t really cooler, but remember how you had that one friend who always seemed to get just a little more attention than you and you never really knew why? That’s the case with Holly’s friend Shelly and the way Holly claims her revenge is mean, but smart.

“Mean Bone” chronicles one of Maggie’s early breakdowns when she started carrying razor blades and cut an older man who thought nothing of flirting with her. The title story tells of Holly’s current love life, having sex with men from internet dating sites and a near stranger she encounters in her apartment building. In an interesting turn, “The Manzanita Grove” strays from the sisters and instead shows what may have caused some of their issues – this is the story of their father’s relationship with a PhD student. Absent are the two girls who refuse to have anything to do with their father.

What surprised me most about this collection was when I finally noticed that the stories were connected. I’ve previously expressed my dislike of authors who try to bill their short stories as novels, but I didn’t seem to have a problem with it this time. Maybe because Jami wasn’t trying to find a new, “original” way to construct a novel, but instead put her efforts toward just writing good stories. And because they were connected, it became fun finding out who the next story would be about and figuring out how it fit into their lives.

So what are the lessons learned? Accept any book anyone offers to you because, hey, free book! Don’t let old prejudices prevent you from getting into new reads. And just because you have to take two forms of public transportation to get somewhere, sometimes you should make the effort to go. You might get to hear some great people read and you just may meet some friendly, smart, interesting authors.

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