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Review: Curtis Sittenfeld will gently push you to the existential precipice with You Think It, I’ll Say It

Author Curtis Sittenfeld.

You Think It, I’ll Say It

By Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 240 pages

On its surface, You Think It, I’ll Say It, is a breezy collection of short stories about not a whole lot. There are no cliffhangers or gasp-worthy twists in Curtis Sittenfeld’s world of mostly white, generally professional-class middle America. A woman runs into her high-school nemesis while on honeymoon, a recent college grad takes an irrational dislike to a woman she volunteers with, an expectant mother puts a stop to an iffy e-mail correspondence with her brother-in-law. These are tales of the deepest banalia, the most minor key of dramas in the lives of people privileged enough for these to be classed as crises.

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Give it a few pages, however, and like a Trojan Horse wrapped in Midwestern nice, this Cincinnati, Ohio-born, St. Louis, Mo.-based writer’s latest release is discomforting, disturbing and chock full of the kind of one-liners that require a digestion break. The opening story – about a woman who loses her licence in a cab driven by a Trump supporter – could very well take three days of stop-start reading if you can stomach it at all.

The truly disturbing thing – and herein lies this New York Times bestselling author’s magic – is that you won’t be able to stop thinking about it, talking about it, imploring everyone you know to please hurry up and read this story or that one so you can debrief what went down.

Sittenfeld, you see, has a superpower, and it’s one that she spells out in this short-story collection’s title. You Think It, I’ll Say It is a mission statement of sorts for a writer who excels at doing just that. She puts into prose (nothing fancy, even workmanlike at times) what we’re all thinking but would never dare to articulate, even to ourselves, and a lot of the time it’s not nice. It’s small-minded, in fact, unkind; our worst, most private selves laid bare on a page. The make-you-squirm accuracy with which she nails her mostly female narrators’ inner lives makes you wonder if she’s had your own internal monologue wearing a wire, or at least read its LiveJournal from 2008. It’s how she turns A Regular Couple, that story about reuniting with a teenager tormentor, into a meditation on power dynamics and the dark joy of a petty revenge, and Gender Studies, a.k.a. the Trump supporter story, into a hard look at the ugly arrogance of liberal smugness. But more than big thematic critiques, it’s the laser-sharp asides that get you, such as this one in Vox Clamantis in Deserto, about a middle-aged woman reflecting back on her unhappy early 20s: “I’m relieved to have aged out of that visceral sense that my primary obligation is to be pretty.” That she does it all in a tone that is amiable, warm and often very funny seems like the greatest magic trick of all.

None of this, of course, comes as a surprise to the seasoned Sittenfeld reader. The now 42-year-old’s first novel, Prep, was named one of The New York Times’ five best fiction releases of 2005. It’s a vaguely autobiographical story of an outsider looking in at a New England private school, modelled along the lines of Sittenfeld’s own high-school experience as a kid from Ohio who landed at boarding school in Massachusetts. Before I read it, I can remember someone saying how it “messed her up” in the same breath as she raved her recommendation. The specifics of her own turmoil were never revealed, but I do vividly recall my own bewildered feeling of being transported back into my own brain, circa 16-years-old, by this complete stranger.

Since Prep, Sittenfeld has released four more novels, two of which generated their own particular sorts of controversy. 2008’s American Wife was a thinly veiled telling of the life of Laura Bush, and Sittenfeld, a Democrat herself, painted a portrait of a political woman that was either brilliantly nuanced or oversympathetic, depending on whom you asked. The haters, however, really came for Sittenfeld and her modern reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, because well, they’re purists and Jane as a yoga instructor and Darcy and Elizabeth as friends with benefits may be a bridge (to suburban Cincinnati) too far. For all that it observes modern behaviour with an Austen-like sharpness, Eligible is actually the softest, coziest of Sittenfeld’s published work, and she gives her characters happy endings you will not find (for the most part) in the greyer, more complicated world of You Think It, I’ll Say It.

Instead, this new collection ends on Do-Over, set in the wake of Trump’s victory, in which two now-middle-aged classmates rehash the results of a contested (and ultimately, sexist) election upset when they were in high school. It’s a murky conversation that’s about Hillary Clinton, yes, and the role that gender plays in politics, but it’s also about where people end up, and the ghosts of their teenage selves that never leave them. As the female character remarks: “There was this story I told myself, that growing up I’d been the awkward good girl … but in the long term I’d come out ahead. I thought I was finished being the teenager … wanting things she couldn’t have. But something came loose inside me, and I am still that teenager. What’s weirdest about having reverted to my teenage longings is that this time round, I don’t know what they’re for. Back then, they were for you, but what am I so desperate for now?”

What, indeed? Other than a hug, maybe, and a reassuring hand to pull us back from the existential precipice Sittenfeld so gently, tenderly pushed us to just there. Oh, and about 10 more stories where that came from.

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Sarah Laing is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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