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Review: Boys and Girls Like You and Me, by Aryn Kyle

As anyone knows who has spent an afternoon browsing through the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looking for descriptions of family and friends, Histrionic Personality Disorder is characterized by "an enduring pattern … of pervasive and excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behaviour," an inappropriate flirtatiousness and a speedy presumption of intimacy with new acquaintances; apparently, it affects about 3 per cent of the population.

The jacket bumph for Aryn Kyle's new short-story collection, Boys and Girls Like You and Me, touts the author's "uncanny grasp of the loneliness, selfishness, and longing that underlie female experience." But by the seventh or eighth of the 11 stories here, even the least motivated amateur diagnostician will have detected an enduring pattern among Kyle's volatile, needy, whimsical heroines, and might conclude, browsing through the DSM-IV, that they represent "female experience" to the tune of only about 3 per cent.

This isn't to say Boys and Girls is bad. Kyle is a meticulous, funny writer. Her first novel, The God of Animals, was a prize-winning bestseller about a sullen tween growing up on a failing Colorado ranch. Like many of the girls in these stories, the heroine, Alice, had an absent mother, a troubled father, an inappropriate relationship with an older man and jealous friendships with other girls.

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But The God of Animals also had horses. A reader fatigued by the coming-of-age narrative could skim through Alice's abortive foray into cafeteria popularity and her awkward first kiss to linger over Kyle's deadpan, vivid procedural descriptions of Alice's father's domestication of a wild mare. Those scenes became a potent and memorable metaphor for Alice's difficult initiation into adulthood.

The stories in Boys and Girls cover similar emotional ground, only without any horses to carry the meaning. Girls and women observe their fathers having affairs with younger women, or themselves have affairs with older men; they cozy up to other women in order to use them, betray them or assume their identities.

In place of an overarching metaphor, there are moments of ironic insight that reveal the weird subjectivity behind characters' normal behaviour. In Nine, Tess's teacher reassures her worried father that, in spite of her compulsive lying, Tess is "bright and sensitive and doing very well in geography"; pages later, in a casual payoff as elegant and elaborate as any Rube Goldberg device's, Kyle reveals that Tess had been studying geography in the hope of winning a baby hamster, "something all her own to love." (This is heartbreaking in the story's larger context. The baby hamster, incidentally, is eaten by its father, "a boy hamster named Bon Jovi," before Tess can claim it.)

Kyle's dark, queasy comic sensibility hits full stride in Sex Scenes in a Chain Bookstore, in which amoral Jillian helps her unhappy (and unappetizing) boss, Eric, wreck his home and career. She tells a co-worker about the affair:

" 'You know he has a kid, right?'

" 'April,' I say. 'I give her flute lessons on Thursdays.'

"[...]'That's fucked-up.'

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"I shrug. 'She wants to learn how to play.' "

Badump-bump. Jillian's workplace trysts with Eric make for some funny writing - they do it in Self-Improvement, for starters. But as in Kyle's other stories about gamines having dreary flings with unappealing men - Brides, Captain's Club, Company of Strangers - you wonder what's in it for them.

In the collection's third to last piece, Kyle gives the game away. Not so much a story as a symptomatology, Femme is a first-person-plural account of a variety of female friendship:

"In high school, we giggled with you when you confessed your secret crush to us, your Rick or Sam or Alex. Then we shrugged helplessly when he asked us to the winter formal. You have met us a hundred times before. But still, you don't recognize us. Still, you don't see us coming until we have gone."

She's not talking about all women; just a certain type. If you're interested in that type, this book merits your attention. The writing is much funnier and better than the DSM-IV's. And you might wind up recognizing someone you know.

Wendy Banks is in no way qualified to diagnose personality disorders in others.

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