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Objects of desire

My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro; Edited by Jeffrey Eugenides; Harper: 590 pp., $24.95

January 13, 2008|Louisa Thomas | Louisa Thomas has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times Book Review.

What makes a love story? The answer found in "My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead," an anthology of short stories edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, may surprise. The thread that binds these 27 disparate tales -- spanning 120 years -- is loneliness. Love here doesn't join people together. More often than not it cracks them apart.

The objects of love can take many forms: the beloveds who don't love their lovers in return. Or the beloveds who were once in love but then fell out. Or the beloveds who have died. Betrayal knows many guises. In each case, the root of these stories is unhappiness; rain is its sustenance (weather is a recurring motif). The blossom -- love -- can be beautiful, but it quickly withers and rots.

"A love story can never be about full possession," Eugenides writes in the book's introduction. "The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims -- these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." (Tell that to Jane Austen, but he has a point.)

Take, for instance, Victor, the narrator of Nabokov's magisterial "Spring in Fialta." Victor loves Nina. Nina is beautiful and bewitching -- and is married to an insufferable cad, will flirt with any man and "had always either just arrived or was about to leave."

Or consider the case of the narrator of Miranda July's frenetic and touching "Something That Needs Nothing," who loves her best friend hopelessly and unrequitedly -- unrequitedly, that is, until she dons a wig and gets a job stripping for strangers at a peep show. Where love goes, cruelty follows.

The cruelty can be exquisite. In "The Hitchhiking Game," by Milan Kundera, a timid girl flirts with her more experienced boyfriend by pretending to be a seductive hitchhiker. "Where are you headed, miss?" he responds. The game is liberating ("Everything was permitted her," the girl realizes with astonishment and dawning glee) -- until they find themselves trapped in it. Their roles harden and their true selves dissolve; punishment and lust become their only modes of interaction. The sex, naturally, is fantastic. Another theme emerges: sensual pleasure and love, love and the body, are often at odds.

This is true in a very different sense in two other stories here: Mary Robison's short, affecting "Yours" and Alice Munro's remarkable and complicated novella "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (recently adapted into the film "Away From Her"). In both, a sick body makes a mockery of love. Inevitably, no matter how strong the bonds -- and no matter how extraordinary, genuine and ennobling the final expression of affection -- someone is left alone.

Of course, not all love stories end in death, alienation, ambivalence, uncertainty or tears. You'd be hard-pressed to find a popular movie or novel that did. But short stories offer a different escape -- not from unhappiness, but into it. Reading these tales is an exercise first in empathy and then in schadenfreude. Love stories complicate and confirm our own experiences; we feel acutely the thrills and the traumas. But the end comes quickly, before we become too invested. We're free to watch from a safe vantage. Witnessing the characters' loneliness relieves our own. Their pain becomes our pleasure -- especially when, as is often the case in these stories, the darkness is lightened by humor.

The mix chosen by Eugenides is wonderful. (All proceeds from the book will go to support the youth writing program 826 Chicago, a spin-off of the program Dave Eggers founded in San Francisco.) There are a few missteps (William Faulkner's grotesque "A Rose for Emily" is not, to my mind, a love story), but Eugenides does a good job of including less obvious choices (by George Saunders, David Bezmozgis and Deborah Eisenberg, to name a few) along with old standards that reward rereading (James Joyce's "The Dead"; Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With the Little Dog") and great hits by the genre's masters (Grace Paley, William Trevor and Raymond Carver among them). Harold Brodkey justly makes the cut twice.

The plots are wildly different; the range in tone, form and style is immense. This brings unexpected delights. It is, for example, a small thrill to go from the solemn, lapidary language of "The Dead" straight into Denis Johnson's "Dirty Wedding," with its rush of words and inarticulate speed ("yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah"). And it is a bigger thrill to realize that however painful the heartbreak, love offers real rewards -- and these stories are among them.

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