Review of Happy Like This
Happy Like This
by Ashley Wurzbacher
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019.
Ashley Wurzbacher’s debut story collection, Happy Like This, winner of the John Simmons Award for Short Fiction and published by the University of Iowa Press, is a solidly crafted, at times playful, exploration of separation, belonging, attachment, and resilience in women’s lives.
In the ten stories, Wurzbacher creates a wonderful variety of female characters — aspiring competitive bodybuilder, factitious disorder researcher, ballet dancer, mermaid performer, married speech therapist, middle schooler orphaned by her mom, plus a number of academics. Even with the variety of voices explored here — different ages, ambitions, levels of hope and despair — Wurzbacher has constructed interesting narrative parallels throughout that give Happy Like This a terrific cohesion. This doesn’t read as a fragmented grouping of stories but as a complete, focused whole.
Throughout the collection I saw recurring patterns of separation and replacement, where characters have endured a separation (often death) or face an impending split, and consequently seek out some approximation of what (or who) was lost. Here you have daughters mourning dead fathers and missing mothers, friends mourning lost confidantes, twins wrestling with changes that lead them to forking paths, performers haunted by the children who almost were. The sense of loss is palpable, underscoring the depth of the initial connection. These stories have a strong focus on the One Who Remained, who is sometimes flailing forward through the absence, trying to accept the realigned reality with grace, and often finding emotional proxies in others.
In the story “Happy Like That,” for example, speech therapist Elaine mourns her recently deceased best friend, Lillian, and initiates contact with Lillian’s lover, entertaining thoughts of slipping into the spot her friend left behind. Perhaps in her grief Elaine attempts to become a shadow version of her friend, to achieve closeness with her by taking on her life. Elaine’s understanding of intimacy is challenged by this attempt. She’s left wondering: What was revealed and what was kept from her because she couldn’t handle it?
In “Make Yourself at Home,” university-worker Caroline has lost her father and to escape the silence of her grief, agrees to housesit for an old college classmate, Meredith. Retrieving the friend’s mail, Caroline finds a letter from a woman also named Meredith, and begins a correspondence pretending to be her former classmate. This epistolary friendship deepens into a real connection, despite the deception, with the initial letter writer serving as an emotional replacement for Caroline’s loss.
In “The Fake Mermaid” Wurzbacher creates a similarly interesting dynamic, opening on mermaid performer Luna whose current partner is pressuring her to have a child. Both attend a mermaid performance at a kid’s birthday party, where it’s revealed that the celebrated child is the daughter of Luna’s most significant ex, Shay. Here Luna is the One Who Remained, coming face to face not only with her beloved ex but with the daughter who under other circumstances, had they navigated their issues differently, could have been her own. It’s telling in this story when the birthday child recognizes the mermaid as fake, throwing doubt on the mermaid’s current relationship, the cove where she’d landed after the turbulent end of her relationship with Shay. Though outwardly different, the stories carry so many parallels — the navigation of loss, the reckoning with the need to move forward —that unify them.
Wurzbacher also effectively portrays characters facing impending separation, reconciling themselves to the division to come. “Ripped” may be the most overt example of that, detailing the way that Iris copes with her twin sister’s new drive to compete in a bodybuilding tournament. No longer are the sisters mistaken for each other or joined with matching personalities; the sister Circe is forming her own independent self. Here the One Who Remained is the twin Iris who says, “I miss the way things were before we began to wonder what else we could be” (57). Readers notice the play on the title “Ripped,” referring not just to the bodybuilder’s physique but to the physical cleaving of the two halves. Who will Iris be in the wake of this separation?
The collection’s overall structure — with the ten stories grouped into two halves titled “Like This” and “Like That” — also suggests division and separation. “Like This” and “Like That” are interesting, undefinable, or at least context-specific categories. Without pushing too hard on the idea, it seems that the collection is interested in the relationships between distinct parts and wholes, the coming apart and grouping together.
Structurally I also admire the touches of playfulness throughout the book. “Sickness and Health” follows the form of a scientific study. “The Problem With You Is That” tells a family’s story through each family member’s distinct point of view. I found myself most drawn to moments when narrators made direct addresses to readers, which occurs in several places. In the title story, for example, the narrator makes this address: “You’ll notice I’m calling her Little Girl — not because she doesn’t have a name but because she could be anybody, any girl; she could be you, she could be me, once upon a time” (195). This line carries tremendous weight. Also, the story “Ripped,” which moves to an episode of violence, hinges on Iris’s direct address near the end: “Oh, sure, you would never have let him; you’d have been too strong for that. But let me ask you this …: How do you know?” (58 ) — a startling assertion implicating readers and echoing the final turn in Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (12). The boldness of the direct address is admirable, jolting readers into an intensified emotional experience; it also suggests, in the case of “Ripped,” that Iris now stands up as an individual herself.
Wurzbacher is also adept at imparting lines that resonate with universal wisdom, such as this understanding in “Sickness and Health”: “She knows that it’s hard to say I want you to take care of me, which is why, for the most part, we don’t” (17) and from “Ripped”: “Such pressure, to be thought beautiful; such labor, to love” (49). As a reader I trusted such universal lines and looked for them; Wurzbacher effectively layers in clear truths, unearthing them skillfully like gems in a mine.
Looking back on the collection, I think what’s most impressive to me is the way Wurzbacher pulled together the varied depictions of female loss and resilience into a cohesive, complex, and purposeful whole. This is a book I’ll read again.
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