Emma Straub’s debut collection of stories, Other People We Married, is full of quirky, thoughtful, resonating characters and has earned her comparisons with Lorrie Moore.
When an author is compared to Ann Beattie and Lorrie Moore, can any literary, pretentious reader refrain from snatching her book? So begins my love affair with Emma Straub’s Other People We Married. The unembellished writing in this collection of twelve droll stories appeals to me as the refined simplicity of Straub’s language allows her short story collection to coalesce into a collection primarily concerned with character. Most memorable in Straub’s stories are the people: quirky, thoughtful, resonating.
My favorite character is Sophie who moves from New York to Wisconsin with her husband James in the story “Fly-Over State.” A professor’s wife who is decidedly from “the East Coast,” Sophie strikes an unlikely friendship with the young man next door who refers to himself as “Mud” or “Mutt.” Sophie claims to “enjoy the first signs of unfriendliness in a month” when speaking with Mud. As a snobby New Yorker myself, I understand and relate to Sophie’s unease about Wisconsin: “there was too much space. My laptop and I shared a room that James generously referred to as ‘my office,’ which by virtue of its existence exerted so much pressure over us that we had to avoid it.” Sophie begins to work in a coffee shop because she “figures it might be good reason to get out of the house, especially now that it was getting cold and there was nothing to do that didn’t involve snowshoes.” By the end of the story, I couldn’t help but wonder: is Sophie losing it? She thinks about how each time you move, you leave behind “more and more.” The quiet charm of “Fly-Over State” resides in this precise statement; it is a story of what we lose on the way to becoming ourselves.
A recurring character in this collection of short stories is Franny Gold. She first appears as a Barnard freshman in “Pearls,” then, as a wife in a dysfunctional marriage in “Other People We Married,” and finally as a woman who gains self-actualization in “Mohawk.” After the first story, each time Franny reappears, you felt as though you are running into an old friend who you hadn’t seen in a while with a sense of surprise, a twinge of love and disgust, a re-construction of something forgotten but not lost. In “Pearls,” we see Franny from Jackie’s point of view, and Franny is the object of desire. In “Other People We Married,” we see Franny from her gay friend Charles’s point of view, and Franny now becomes the object of fascination. Charles thinks: “[Franny’s] sunglasses took up half her face, like something out of Charlie’s Angels. Charlie’s post-pregnancy-weight angel. Charlie’s frozen custard angel. Charlie’s fag-hag angel.” Finally, in “Mohawk,” the story is told from her husband Jim’s point of view. There is a jarring sense of dissonance as Jim views Franny: it “was although they’d both been replaced by actors […] she could have been sitting across from anyone. There was no hazy affection floating over the table, or between their feet.” The transition from desire to fascination to discord, which Straub so eloquently portrays in the Franny stories, offers a multi-faceted study of character. Franny emerges a diamond, which we can hold under the light in different angles to analyze its beauty.
In this collection, widowhood is a motif as the estrangement from something we were once close to. In “Marjorie and the Birds,” Marjorie, a recent widow who has taken up bird-watching, develops a crush (that she herself is not even aware of) on her bird-watching instructor. The undercurrents of loneliness, longing, and remembering pulsate beneath the story, and they surface only when Marjorie discovers that her instructor is leaving. What compels me in this story is its unassuming ache. Embedded within the story’s direct language, Marjorie’s pain refuses to explode but quietly, insistently throbs. In “Puttanesca,” Laura, also a widow, is set up with Stephen by her therapist. Handsome Stephen is an unusual match for Laura of the “unplucked eyebrows and sensible footwear.” Together, Stephen and Laura visit Rome, which Laura visited about a decade ago with her deceased husband. When looking at Bernini’s “Apolloand Daphne” she wants to flee, Laura discovers her inability to love Stephen. Like all of Straub’s stories, this discovery is subtle, not a bold declaration or powerful revelation but a shifting of thoughts.
These quiet epiphanies in Straub’s stories place her in the company of Beattie and Moore, and the voices she creates are contemporary. When I finished reading this exquisite collection, I flipped back to the beginning of the book and stared at the table of contents. The book was suddenly heavier in my hands—suddenly filled with the weight of all these character’s silent fantasies, side-thoughts and careful revelations. Other People We Married is a captivating first collection of short stories for this writer; I look forward to her future work.