An engaging, varied collection of short fiction
A love triangle plays out over decades on a Montana dude ranch. A hurdler and a gymnast spend a single night together in the Olympic village. Mistakes and mysteries weave an intangible web around an old man’s deathbed in Paris, connecting disparate destinies. On the slopes of an unfinished ski resort, a young woman searches for her vanished lover. A couple’s Romanian honeymoon goes ominously awry, and, in the mesmerizing title story, a former child actress breaks with her life in a Hollywood cult.
Last year’s Great Circle was the first of Shipstead’s novels that I read. I loved her style and the way she wrote her characters. So, I was very much looking forward to reading her next book (as well as her back-catalogue). In You Have Got a Friend in 10A, Shipstead presents readers with a varied portrait of humanity, and the ways many of us cope with our situation and choices. I enjoyed this.Each of the stories in this collection examines various aspects of love, sex, and life. In particular, there is a recurring theme of how our perceptions of others don’t always align, as do our memories of shared past events and experiences. There is another recurring theme of nostalgia and/or regret, as certain characters consider the life paths not chosen.
The stories are nicely varied, in terms of focus and setting. In the opening story, “The Cowboy Tango”, we get a tale of long unrequited love, betrayal and jealousy set on a horse ranch, and the quiet (though no less consequential) ways a spurned prospective partner can undermine a life. In “Souterrain”, a lie about parentage causes tension and strife between an American heiress in Paris and the housekeeper’s son. “In the Olympic Village” is about a tryst between a gymnast and a hurdler, and how circumstances can throw people together who know they won’t work otherwise. In “Lambs”, a group of artists navigate their own insecurities and others’ pretension and arrogance.
While there are times when the stories skewer certain archetypes (for example, the perhaps-obligatory, amusing story about MFA students, “Acknowledgments”), Shipstead is always fair and often sympathetic to the failings or weaknesses of her characters. “Angel Lust” discusses a successful movie executive’s attempts to bond with his daughters, while wrestling with his strained relationship with his now-dead father, and his lingering affection for his first wife — he’s made so many mistakes (many of them cliché), but you come away feeling for him by the end. The titular story is about an actress who thinks back on the abuses she suffered, and also her time in a Scientology-like “religion”.
Each of the stories is tightly written, with no padding. They get to the point, but never feel rushed. Shipstead’s prose is excellent, her characters three-dimensional. There’s some well-deployed, gentle humour, and plenty of empathy for the characters and their shortcomings. If you’re a fan of the author’s novels, I certainly think you should read this. If you are new to Shipstead’s work, then this would work equally well as an introduction.