I get offered daily e-book bargains—freebies, or super-cheap prices—by BookBub, and sometimes I take them. I have learned, however, to first look up each one on Goodreads to see its average star rating and read some reviews; sometimes they are a bargain simply because they will never make it any other way. Also, BookBub has a habit of offering #3 in a series, with the hope, no doubt, that you will acquire it, realize there are two books before it, and buy them at full price. Nope. That’s what the library is for.
Anyway, some recent freebies were short stories by prominent authors and, while in general I dislike the very idea of short stories, being offered something for free by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Alice Hoffman definitely made me pause…and then say yes! So I acquired and read The Bookstore Sisters, by Alice Hoffman, and My Evil Mother, by Margaret Atwood.
I read these stories solely because of who wrote them. I have never understood the motivation behind writing short stories: Why go to all the trouble of selecting a venue and creating complex characters, only to write 34 pages about them and stop? I would think it would be as unsatisfying for the writer as for the reader!
I checked some reviews after finishing The Bookstore Sisters, and had to agree with someone else on Goodreads who summarized it as “Good, if a little twee.” Although I gave it four stars for the writing and characters, I was disappointed in this effort by Hoffman, because it is essentially a shorthand version of every “relationship” book written by lesser writers in the past five years: Two sisters, estranged—one remains at the “homestead” while the other goes off to, of course, NYC, and “forgets” her past. The homebody runs into crisis, the stray returns home to help, a breakthrough is made, the family income is saved, a love is rekindled, and…scene. Meh.
I had more initial hope that My Evil Mother, by Margaret Atwood, would rise to the level of the few short stories I ever really appreciated, chief among them those by that mistress of the unsettling tale, Daphne du Maurier. (I do love her compilation called Don’t Look Now.) While told in the voice of the daughter, the story showcases Mom, who is giving a perfect performance as a 1950s housewife, attired in pin-striped shirtwaist dresses protected by flowered aprons, delivering the occasional tuna casserole to a sick neighbor, while hiding her true self. The reality is that the daughter never knows whether, when Mom takes out her mortar and pestle to grind something up, it will be the garlic and parsley she needs to mix into her meat loaf, or something concocted from the plants in her off-limits herb garden in the back yard and sold to a weeping woman who visits their kitchen after dark. (Coincidence: Shades of Alice Hoffman here, with the aunts providing contraband love spells for the ungrateful townsfolk in Practical Magic.)
There are funny bits, as the mother tries to convince the daughter that her gym teacher is an ancient nemesis who may work a spell with the daughter’s hair if she isn’t assiduous about collecting it from her hairbrush and burning it. Or that the mother has turned the girl’s absent father into the oversize garden gnome who stands on their front step. But ultimately, there’s not much of a story here, only “stories,” anecdotes about a girl growing up with a peculiar, eccentric mother and coming to certain realizations, once grown, that help her deal with her own surly teenage daughter.
Ultimately, My Evil Mother had a certain novelty and a lot of imagination (I loved the mother’s voice), but it wasn’t a satisfactory experience. All you get with a story like this is a skim off the surface of these people’s lives, when you want their full depth and presence—the entire bowl of pudding. I think I won’t spend time on them again, even if they are written by authors I love and admire.
Thank you. I was also tempted by those offerings, but didn’t buy them. Now I’m glad I didn’t. Short stories are usually too short to be satisfying.