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Pickle Me This

April 3, 2009

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Stunning, stunning, stunning, let me sing the praises of Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. I fell in love with her novel The Monsters of Templeton last year, but anything so extraordinary could well have been a trick of hype. By “anything so extraordinary”, of course, I mean Groff’s literary talent, and so it thrilled me as I read her short story collection to realize she’s definitely credible, and her work is enduring.

The stories are remarkable, but just as much is their collection. And not simply because of the gorgeous cover design (whose theme of loveliness is continued through the book entire). I will say, however, that this is a book worth judging by its cover, for the reader will not be disappointed. The cover’s bird motif appearing throughout the collection, joining these stories otherwise so disparate by style, narration, location, characterization. But the birds are there, and so is water, bodies of big and small, and swimmers, and poolside loungers, and drownings and rain. So that to ponder all these stories together after the fact is to draw surprising connections, new conclusions. Here are nine stories that belong together, but not in ways that one might suspect.

Lauren Groff is a storyteller in the old-fashioned sense. Her intention is not to cultivate realism, but rather atmosphere, fully steeped. Her narrators take on a nineteenth-century kind of omniscience, have a sweeping way about them, and the storytelling is really as much of the point as the story itself. Characters sometimes taking on fairytale proportions, particularly male ones who are devious and dastardly, which might be regarded as limited dimensionality, but I think it’s just another kind of dimension altogether.

The nine stories collected here are long and developed with slow subtlety. “L. DeBard and Aliette” tells the story of a poolside romance between a determined polio victim and a poet against the background of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. That its ending is wandering yet still shocking shows its force is much more than a trick. “Majorette” traces the life of a baton-twirling girl fenced in by limitations thought to be hereditary, but then shows this is not the case. I loved “Blythe”, which traces the story of a high-maintainence friendship, and the plight of the friend called on for saving time and time again. “Watershed” was a tragic romance dark and never saccharine. And while “Majorette” reminded me of Revolutionary Road, “Delicate Edible Birds” had something of Suite Francaise about it, and what kind of a span is that? Her tropical locations were also a wee bit Joan Didion.

Which is not to say that Lauren Groff is derivative, and I mean these references as compliments rather than explanations for. Because stunning, stunning, stunning, I’m still singing– that all these works can come from one author, particularly one still young, is incredibly impressive. That the short story form is celebrated here with such deftness, and confidence, is terribly exciting. And the whole career Groff still has before her– it’s exciting to contemplate all that lies ahead for us to read.

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