The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind by Vanessa Farnsworth
In The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind, ordinary objects—including a pair of plaid shoes, a ceiling tile, a quartz crystal, and a character’s own two feet—become obsessions, each offering much-needed distraction to the women who occupy Vanessa Farnsworth’s debut collection of short stories. Though each has little in common, the protagonists seem connected: they’re unravelling, whether it’s their health, marriage, or sanity that seem to be coming undone. The women in this collection have little control over their circumstances, which include infidelity, spiteful family members, and illness.
“It’s amazing what you learn about yourself when a possibility suddenly becomes an impossibility,” writes Farnsworth in “Universal Healthcare,” a story about Rose, who slipped on ice and hit her head so hard that her neck popped and “her entire body disappeared from existence.” In the twenty-two stories that make up The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind, common themes quickly emerge, among them boredom and isolation when characters find themselves in a hospital bed or “sequestered in [a] godforsaken cottage.” However, most notably, there is a recurring theme of failing health, as a number of women grapple with the frailty of their own deteriorating mental or physical wellness.
“Brenda no longer remembers what it’s like to live without pain or, for that matter, what it’s like to stare at something more interesting than an artless stucco
ceiling. Or to not stare at all,” writes Farnsworth in the collection’s eponymous story. Farnsworth, a science journalist and former horticulturist, is familiar with writing about health, having published a memoir in 2013, Rain on a Distant Roof: A Personal Journey Through Lyme Disease, about “one woman’s struggle to understand the disease that’s destroying her body and mind.” In both her memoir and short story collection, the public health system has villainous qualities, not always having patients’ best interests in mind.
The stories that inhabit the first half of The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind feel formulaic as a problem is introduced and a distraction quickly follows; however, deeper into the collection, the stories become nuanced and complex. At times, it’s difficult to know if elements of Farnsworth’s erratic plots are real or imagined, as strange characters, including a laughing clown and a long-dead grandfather, appear.
The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind isn’t written to make readers feel comfortable. In fact, it does the opposite, thrusting readers into the thick of some of life’s most intolerable situations, confronting them with inventive and biting dialogue. However, even in their worst moments, the women in this book are relatable. When they find themselves in the most outlandish situations, readers can’t help but feel at least a shred of empathy.