I originally bought this book of short stories for my sister, but the description on the book jacket sounded so intriguing, I decided to get a copy for myself. Full disclosure, it’s been a while since I’ve read this book, so I’m writing with a few notes by my side. However, I think my distance from the book has been beneficial, as I remember with greater clarity the stories in this collection that really stood out to and stuck with me.
One of my standouts was “Blythe”, narrated by a bored stay-at-home mom who was previously a busy attorney. Boredom leads this woman to join a poetry class, where she unexpectedly meets and befriends a glamorous, commanding fellow mother – the eponymous Blythe. A suicidal, dramatic poet and artist, Blythe rips the narrator out of the dullness of her everyday existence and draws her into a wild, lifelong friendship that ends up warping both of their lives. Over the years, the narrator’s life follows a more traditional trajectory, while Blythe becomes a well-known and provocative artist. Their friendship is at turns exhilarating and draining, but it’s overarching characteristic is its toxicity. The narrator comes to feel beholden to Blythe, catering to her every whim and playing stand-in mother to her neglected young sons. With time, Blythe becomes more and more volatile, growing in popularity, size, ego, and personality, and her very being seems to threaten to consume those around her, the narrator in particular. To me, the story felt very true to life; as someone who has experienced my share of toxic friendships, this story depicted all too well how easy it is to get dragged around and bled dry by the domineering Blythes of the world.
Another story I enjoyed was “Sir Fleeting”, recounted by an old woman looking back on her life after being visited by an old lover. As a very young woman on her honeymoon, the narrator falls in love and lust with a wealthy, wandering French traveler she meets in Argentina. As this man drifts in and out of her life over the years, she seems to want to hold on to him, but also enjoys the fleeting nature of their trysts, knowing that she can never have a true relationship with him. No matter where they are in their lives and personal relationships, the two always happen to bump into each other and rekindle the common spark that attracted them in the first place. But this playboy is slippery, and usually disappears before she can fully understand what she is to him, or what she even really wants from him. However, upon their final meeting as old friends and lovers, things take an interesting and rather melancholy turn as the veil of infatuation is lifted and truth finally begins to break the spell he has on her.
Two of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection were “Watershed” and “L. Debard and Aliette”. The former revolves around a woman who falls in love with, marries, and then loses a man in a tragic accident following a newlywed marital tiff. Again told by a woman recounting her past, this story is arguably the saddest of them all. I will not do it the injustice of trying to relate all of the particulars – you just need to read it. The latter follows the lives of a young poetry-loving girl with polio and the much older, very accomplished Olympic swimmer and poet she falls in love with. Set in the early 1900s, the two eventually begin an illicit affair that challenges the mores of the day, and when they are finally found out, their lives are violently and irrevocably changed. The story manages to be dark, romantic, weird, and somehow sadly uplifting. Wikipedia tells me that this is a more modern depiction of the story of Abelard and Heloise. I’m no expert on that story, but I did enjoy this one.
Overall, I found this short story collection to be odd, gloomy, and therefore satisfying. Each story has dark undercurrents flowing beneath the surface, and nothing is tied up quite neatly in the end. I like that women are centrally featured in these stories, and there is an intense examination of women’s expected roles in society, and of the consequences of breaking from convention. Maybe it’s because of the reference to the grossly inhumane “delicacy” ortolan in the book’s title, but when I think of this collection, I imagine each of the stories as a tiny little bird, beautiful and ostensibly fragile, but full of crunchy, sharp little bones that are revealed upon delving in. The bones of these stories definitely stick in the mind for quite a while.
Those who like reading about the nuances in the female experience from different perspectives. Also for those who enjoy stories that end up being much darker than they first appear.