Sittenfeld’s ‘I’ll Say It’ says a lot about us
OK, I’ll say it: I get a kick out of Curtis Sittenfeld.
The novelist (Eligible, American Wife, Prep) is a sharp observer of human nature and human relationships — especially the male/female variety — and she’s a hoot, an appealing combination in my book.
These qualities are on vivid display in You Think It, I’ll Say It (Random House, 223 pp., ★★★g), a witty, breezy, zeitgeist-y collection of 10 short stories, her first. Sittenfeld is a Midwesterner, and many of these tales take place in the “heartland.” Her characters, though, would fit right in at a Brooklyn dinner party: They’re mostly middle-age, upper-middle-class professionals, bright, opinionated and, quite often, totally clueless when it counts.
No doubt Sittenfeld, with her razorsharp, often hilarious zingers, is a formidable dinner party guest herself. Here’s the droll way she begins “Gender Studies,” the opening story:
“Nell and Henry always said they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case — it’s August 2015 — but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget.”
Note the date. Donald Trump and the 2016 election factor into the two stories that bookend You Think It, I’ll Say It. In “Gender Studies,” the recently dumped Nell, a professor, is in Kansas City for a conference. Her shuttle driver, a guy in his 20s, strikes up a conversation about Trump (he’s a fan), to which Nell thinks, “You’re a moron.” Nell realizes she’s “insufferable,” though this self-admission seems not to bother her much. She recognizes she and Henry, in 11 passionless, marriage- less years together, finely honed their elitist bona fides by being “deliberately childless,” eating “free-range beef ” (very occasionally) and watching only “high-quality television.” Raise your hand if that’s you!
When she gets to her hotel room and realizes she has lost her driver’s license, Nell calls the driver, who zips right over. What ensues is a modern-day, faintly unpleasant, sexed-up comedy of errors.
Characters make poor judgments and learn unexpected (and sometimes discomfiting) lessons in Sittenfeld’s wellcrafted gems of suburban wisdom. In “The World Has Many Butterflies,” Julie convinces herself she’s madly in love with Graham (both are married) when they start playing a game at parties called “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” which thrills Julie by bringing out her worst instincts as a bitchy, judgmental gossip. In “Plausible Deniability,” a bachelor and his sister-in-law forge an intense, inappropriate connection through a clandestine email exchange about classical music, of all things. Again, someone has seriously misread signals.
Sitting on the sidelines, observing human foibles, the reader gets to vicariously play “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” It’s fun, even when it makes you wince.