I first learned of Lauren Groff a few years ago, when I read and loved her story "L. DeBard and Aliette" in the Atlantic Monthly. Her novel, The Monsters of Templeton, came out early last year and now, to my delight, she has released Delicate Edible Birds, a collection of short stories that includes "L. DeBard and Aliette." It's substantial 300 odd pages and the stories are inventive, moving, and wonderful.
Historical events or figures provide inspiration to many of the stories. Aliette, for example, is based on a combination of Ethelda Bleibtrey (an Olympic gold medallist with an unfortunate name) and Heloise (an abbess of the 12th Century famed for her romantic letters). Another story has a group of journalists riding the front wave of the German invasion of France during World War II. This is not historical fiction, though. The historical context is the excuse, not the point. It's the spark that gets the story going or the setting that provides the rules by which characters must abide.
The stories center, instead, on the relationships between the characters, especially between children and their parents. What makes Groff's collection stand out is her understanding of, and more importantly, her empathy for her characters. She writes with compassion and sensitivity. This is evident in her mastery of the unsaid, the glance, the gesture. Though many of the stories dwell on the dark side of these relationships and the characters are often thrust into terrible circumstances, Groff's stories have an ultimately hopeful tone: one of making happiness, or at least some sort of contentment, out of darkness.
"'This feels like that breath you take after coming up from a long swim underwater. The most gorgeous feeling, that sip of air you feared you'd never have again.' He looks at [his son], and touches his cheek, gently. 'Surfacing,' he says." This moment, of feeling happiness after years of sorrow, when he feels the murmur in the air of his beloved after a lifetime of separation, runs through the collection.
What's disarming, what makes me sit up and open my eyes wider, is when the narrators realize their own complicity, their own small sliver of responsibility, in something terrible. Perhaps because in that moment I see myself, I see the things, large and little, for which I am culpable, but which I have let lie quiet and (almost) forgotten in the past. Perhaps because I see that, were I put in the place of the characters, I would hardly have done anything differently.
Groff's sentences are short and simple, but she writes with a variety of voices. Most of the stories are written in the first person, but one is written in the third person and i t works surprisingly well. So too with the story written in the first person, but addressed t o "you," as though it were a letter or monologue delivered directly to the reader. Her descriptions shimmer, make things come to life. "No," she writes, "my mother never came in, she blew in like the dust devil of a woman she was, stomping the snow off her boots, sending great clouds of snow from her shoulders." Groff has an astounding ability to engross and envelop the reader in the fog of the story; it's difficult to break free before the end, and even then I was left with the lingering sensations of a world one quite real, quite literal receding from my consciousness. There were several moments when I nearly stopped breathing, not for horror or fear, but simply because her words held me so tightly that I forgot to, so tightly that the emotions in the stories were my emotions, the feelings in the stories my feelings. She could almost be describing the experience of reading her stories when Lauren Groff has an astounding ability to engross and envelop the reader in the fog of the story: it's difficult to break free before the end.
She writes, "There are only a few moments in every life where the world becomes entirely real: that night, the lake, the fog, your face so startlingly near, crystallized in me."