[24 February 2009]
Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was a nuanced and inventive story that established her as a talented literary newcomer. While her novel was a sprawling narrative that contained doses of romance, history, and suspense, her new collection of short stories, Delicate Edible Birds, is more quiet.
With most of the stories around 40 pages, each is more akin to a novella, and they often span a significant amount of time. All of the stories focus on women who fit the “delicate, edible bird” description with their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. While a few of the stories stand out because of their compelling sense of place and character, several are held back from being great by characters that never materialize into anything more than hazy sketches.
The opening story, “Lucky Chow Fun” exemplifies some of what Groff does best: she establishes a strong sense of place that becomes an intriguing character in itself. In this story, Groff revisits her Templeton, the town she so lovingly described in her novel. The main character, Elizabeth, is the only female on her high school swim team. She has an absent father, a preoccupied mom, and a special needs sister, so she’s no stranger to adversity.
What makes this story successful is that Groff deftly positions the characters in the contradictory elements of small-town life. When it’s revealed the local Chinese restaurant is the most shameful place in Templeton, the reader cares about the characters reactions because they aren’t just characters. They’re people in a town that’s tranquil but flawed, and that discordance is what makes the story ring true.
But where Groff loses some of that truth telling is in a story like “Majorette”. The story profiles the life of an unnamed woman from birth to old age, where she endures a childhood of abuse and neglect, but eventually emerges as a success, and a better parent to her own children. Groff incorporates an adolescent passion for baton twirling into the narrative that gives the woman a lifeline to the outside world. But the story never really takes hold of its potential to be a nuanced portrait of a troubled woman who makes good. Instead, the “Majorette” seems to be one in a crowded collection of tired narratives about women who are continually disappointed by life.
And while “Majorette” lacks a nuanced character, “Blythe” lacks a certain plausibility because the characters never become real enough to like or hate. The middle-class and average-looking Harriet meets wealthy and beautiful Blythe in a poetry class, and they become best friends. Harriet sticks by Blythe through her many bouts with mania and depression, at the expense of her own aspirations. Yet, Groff never gives Blythe anything besides her crazy outbursts, and Harriet’s sense of self gets lost in trying to mend her broken friend.
However, the relationship of L. Debard and Aliette, shows Groff can create an emotionally charged relationship that is also compelling. Groff retools the love story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th century French lovers who were mismatched in age but drawn together by similar intellectual spirits. Groff uses their unrequited love to set her couple in the midst of the tumultuous1918 flu epidemic.
A polio victim trying to regain use of her legs, Aliette turns to the much older L.Debard, an Olympic swimmer and poet, for swimming lessons. What follows is a masterful story that one would hope is real, not because there’s a happy ending, but because of the passionate scenes Groff creates. This is exemplified in her description of the couple falling in love: “Who listens to the reports of recently decimated populations in Spain, India, Bora Bora, when new lips, tongues, and poems fill the world?” In this story, Groff masterfully gets at the naivety that goes along with love.
Groff’s title story is one of the best in the collection because it follows Bern, a compelling WWII correspondent in Paris who is the only female among the band of traveling journalists trying to escape the city after it falls to the Nazi. When the group is captured and held, Bern’s gender and what it has to offer her captor becomes a means of escape. Instead of a wide-angled look at another broken down bird, the story reveals a compelling depth of character.
It’s hard not to think of Lorrie Moore when reading Groff’s stories: Groff received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where Moore teaches. And Moore’s own short story collection, Birds of America comes to mind, not only because of the “birds” title, but because both are filled with women who face hardship.
Though Moore’s collection is almost a perfect example of successful short stories, Groff’s collection does contain some of those same elements that make Moore so good, namely a love for language. The collection as a whole is not stellar, but there are several nuggets of gold worth discovering.