Sit­ten­feld’s ‘I’ll Say It’ says a lot about us

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Jocelyn McClurg

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.

JOSEPHINE SIT­TEN­FELD

Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld

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