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"Happy Like This" by Ashley Wurzbacher

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They say asking questions is a lot more important and telling than providing answers. In her John Simmons Short Fiction Award-winning collection, Happy Like This, Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely shines at asking questions. These magnificent short pieces focus on young women getting started in their professions. Scientists, therapists, sociologists, frequently there are engaged in working on their dissertations - the final stamp of their qualification to proceed with their careers.

Much of the drama derives from the uncertainty these young people experience. It can have a paralyzing effect. How’s this for a question:

What’s the name for this part of our lives, this circling? A holding pattern, the pilot might say, but what for? When and where will we land, on whose orders, and will we still be holding on to each other when we touch down?” (from the title story, “Happy Like This.”)

OK, I admit that’s more like four questions, but it does reflect the constant uncertainty, the fugue of questioning these characters find themselves engaged it. Sometimes the uncertainty sneaks up on a character, shocking her into a new consciousness, a new life. In my very favorite story, “Happy Like That,” a woman learns a shocking new reality about her recently deceased best friend. Elaine and Lilian had become so very close, sharing major events in their lives - marriage, motherhood, a shared professional training - even to the extent of establishing a speech clinic where they both worked as therapists.

After Lilian’s sudden accidental death, Elaine clings to Lilian’s vestiges by agreeing to meet the lover Lilian had taken. When she learned about this other presence in Lilian’s life, Elaine judged her a bit harshly. When she finds out the whole truth about this lover, and the arrangement that included the lover and the lover’s wife both, Elaine is forced to review her judgment, and her place in her dear friend’s life. The fictive effect of making both characters speech therapists is one of those strokes that marks Ms. Wurzbacher as a master.

The issue of sexual attraction, and whether we will be drawn to one gender exclusively, comes up several times here. In “Fake Mermaid,” another favorite, a young woman poses as a mermaid, complete with an expensive custom-fitted ornate monofin and clamshell bra. She does birthday parties at swimming pools, but the interest and drama in this story flow from its background narrative. Main character Luna is delivered to her birthday party gig by Noah, her fiancé, where she suddenly finds that Shay, a woman with whom she had a tempestuous love affair in college, is one of the lesbian parents of the birthday girl.
In the salient memory from this affair, Luna jumps in a fit of pique into the ocean from a yacht. The story, dealt with in some detail, establishes depth and color to the mermaid conceit, and seeing Shay again at the party brings all the old desires back in a rush. Luna longs to simply swim away, to launch herself into the iron-gray Long Island Sound, but would need someone, Noah or Shay, to carry her to it. She couldn’t complete the trip on her own - she has no feet. This desire to remain in the fluid state of not making a decision captures the essence of this marvelous collection.

Other conundrums befuddle other characters. Some germinate at a very early age. In “American Moon” and “What It’s Like to Be Us,” girls of junior high age begin to battle with uncertainty and life’s emotional challenges. These uncertainties sometimes lead Ms. Wurzbacher’s characters to begin to assume someone else’s identity, or at least compare oneself to another, seemingly more attractive or accomplished person. This occurs very rewardingly in “Ripped” and “Make Yourself at Home.”
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a series of short stories this much. Each entry has its own charm and individuality. That’s one of the most impressive aspects here - how such a broad emotional pallet could unite under this rubric of the need of directions, of answers in a universe that is a cruel combination of callous and mysterious.

A choice, rewarding collection. Take it up!




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