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I have a Valentine’s Day tradition every year. I take out some of my love story collections and dip into them. I try to read one or two stories, typically the shorter ones. One of the books I dipped into was this one – ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead‘ edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Across the years, I had finished reading the other love story collections. This year on Valentine’s I did what I did every year – took out this story collection and thought I will read one or two stories. But, after I read two stories, I decided to read one more, and then another, and then I decided to read the whole book. It took me a few days and I finished reading it yesterday.

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Before I continue with the book, I want to share some thoughts on love stories. In my experience, there is one kind of love story, which most of us like. It describes two people falling in love at first sight, having good romantic times together and then they face challenges – rival suitors, disapproval of parents and community – and our two lovers fight it out and find happiness in the end. Or sometimes they don’t and the story has a sad ending. There are variations of this plot – the two people might be from different communities, ethnicities, and even different generations. They might end up in a high pressure dangerous situation which brings them together and opens their hearts to each other. This is the kind of love story most of us like. Stories like ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ or ‘The Gift of the Magi‘. We can call it the classic love story. There is a second kind of love story. This is the kind of story which seems to be favoured by literary magazines these days. This kind of love story describes how things are in the real world. Or atleast close to it. There is no love at first sight, no great romantic moments and challenges faced, twists and turns in the story etc. In this kind of story, a couple has a long conversation in front of the TV or they bicker about their respective families. Sometimes two married people have an affair, but the affair is described realistically. This is the second kind of love story, the contemporary love story. ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead‘ has stories of the second kind. If you are a person who likes the first kind of love story, but not the second kind, this book is not for you.

My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead‘ has twenty six stories. Many short story masters are featured – for example, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro. Some classic stories are featured – for example, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog‘ (Anton Chekhov), ‘A Rose for Emily‘ (William Faulkner), ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love‘ (Raymond Carver). Most of the stories are short, ranging from two or three pages to around twenty pages. Some of the stories are long – more than thirty pages. I counted six of them. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the book by Jeffrey Eugenides, in which he describes why the collection has this particular title (it refers to a couple of love poems by the Roman poet Catullus), what he means by ‘love stories’ and why he chose these particular stories. I loved the introduction.

So, what about the main book? What do I think about it?

Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news first.

Loved

I loved some of the stories in the book. Like absolutely loved. For example, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog‘ by Anton Chekhov. I had read it before, but had forgotten the story. When I read it again this time, it pressed all the right buttons. It is about two married people who are having an affair. The plot is interesting, but the insights into life are amazing. The prose is vintage Chekhovian, very Russian. The beautiful passages sizzle and leap out of the page. From a writing perspective, it is an education on how to write a short story. People have raved about Chekhov for nearly a century now. This story shows why. The second story I loved was ‘Mouche‘ by Guy de Paussant. In this story, five young men love the same woman. And she loves them all back. What happens after that is the story. It is a beautiful story. The third story I loved was ‘Yours‘ by Mary Robison. I had read it before. This is probably the third time I am reading it. It was still as wonderful as the first time. It is just three pages long. In the third page, there is a surprise, that we don’t see coming. And the whole story is very beautiful. It shows how much magic a master can create even in three pages.

Liked

Other stories I liked in the book were these :

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver – about two couples who sit at the dining table, have a drink and talk about love

Natasha by David Bezmozgis – in which the narrator, who goes to high school, falls in love with his uncle’s step daughter

Some Other, Better Otto by Deborah Eisenberg – in which a gay couple have conversations, debates and the occasional fight

Lovers of their Time by William Trevor – the story of two people having an affair

How to be an Other Woman by Lorrie Moore – the affair story told from the other woman’s perspective. It had an interesting twist in the end.

Jon by George Saunders – set in some kind of future world where a couple struggles between a predictable, safe but constrained life and a free, uncertain life which they can opt for.

Fireworks by Richard Ford – a story about the day in the life of two people in love, when an old lover turns up.

First Love and Other Sorrows by Harold Brodkey – about exactly what the title says.

Honourable Mentions

Some of the stories which I would call honourable mentions were these :

A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner

The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

The Moon in its Flight by Gilbert Sorrentino

Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov – Nabokov’s prose, is elegant, as always. He mocks at readers like me with his vocabulary, by writing phrases like this – “in the lacquer of its elytra a gouache of sky and branches was engulfed“. He also can’t resist taking potshots at modernist writers of his time – “Now, frankly speaking, I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that a ripple of stream consciousness, a few healthy obscenities, and a dash of communism in any old slop pail will alchemically and automatically produce ultramodern literature; and I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash.” Phew!

The Bad Thing by David Gates

Tonka by Robert Musil (the potted biography of the author describes Robert Musil as an English short story writer – bad, bad!)

The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro – halfway through, I thought this will be one of my favourite stories. I wish the ending had been what I had expected.

So, now that the good news is out of the way, what is the bad news? Out of the twenty six stories, only seven are by women writers. That is bad representation. The collection has a heavy Anglo-American bias. Twenty three of the stories were originally written in English. Only three of the stories were originally not written in English – the stories by Chekhov (of course!), Guy de Maupassant (of course!) and Milan Kundera (interesting!). But these are problems which are there in any short story anthology. The bigger problem for me was that except for the three stories I loved, none of the  other stories leapt at me, none of them made me laugh and cry, none of them gave me emotional highs and lows. I expect these from a love story, even the heavily intellectual ones. Fortunately, most of the stories were readable and were interesting. There was only one story which I found very hard to read, ‘Innocence’ by Harold Brodkey. It went on and on without any point and at one stage, I started flipping through the pages and reached the last page. Eugenides describes the story as scandalous in his introduction, and it probably was at the time it was written in the early ’60s, but now, it was a hard read for me.

So, what is the final verdict? Well, ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead‘ is an interesting book. I love the first type of love story, the classic one. I don’t mind the second type of love story now, though there was a time, say around ten years back, when I would have found it hard to read. Because of that, I didn’t love the book overall, though I loved some of the stories. But I would say that the book was a good read. If you are a fan of the classic love story but not a fan of the contemporary version, this book is not for you. But if you like contemporary love stories and are used to reading them in literary magazines, you will love this book.

Have you read ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite love story collection?

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