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Book Review: Delicate Edible Birds

Delicate Edible Birds
By Lauren Groff
Voice, 2009

A note on the rear flap of its dust jacket reveals much about the publisher’s opinion of Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff’s new collection of short stories. The book has been brought forth by a division of Hyperion called Every Woman’s Voice, which invites you to visit its website to join the “ongoing discussion of the topics that matter to bright, busy, curious women like you.” As for members of the grosser gender (like myself, I’m ashamed to admit), don’t you have a football game to watch?

It’s an unfortunate, if somewhat telling, introduction to this talented and pleasing collection. The first thing that strikes you about Delicate Edible Birds is the surprising diversity of the stories, and by extension, the impressive flexibility of the author. Some of these stories are set in the present day and take a loose American vernacular voice. But then “L. DeBard and Aliette” is a rich love story placed during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of the late 1910s. “Majorette” begins at a wedding in 1951, and the title story takes place in France during the first days of the Nazi occupation.

Soon, though, true enough, you realize that these stories are indeed connected by the troubles and fears of their lead female parts. The principal trouble for this varied cast of women is sex, which is so inextricably bound to love and contentment yet so often converted by men into its weaponized form. “Lucky Chow Fun” effectively overlays the normal guilt and longings of a small-town high school girl with the exposé that a brothel filled with Chinese children has been operating behind a local restaurant (and been attracting clientele from all over the neighborhood). “Majorette,” my favorite story of the batch, closely and perceptively inhabits the point of view of a young woman who seems virtually predestined to follow in her mother’s footsteps and get knocked up and married off while still a teenager – and who somehow manages to grapple to a freer, more independent life.

But the deep and resonant concern for women that informs Delicate Edible Birds also circumscribes it. The men here tend to serve as foils, and although they inspire some of Groff’s most razor-edged physical description (when one walk-on is described as having “thinning hair and irisless eyes and round red cheeks like a doll’s” you know at an instant that he’s a park pervert), they too often seem categorically defined as a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” And the few good guys are always conceived as being singularly inaccessible: one is gay, one dies tragically about two minutes after you meet him, and one is literally castrated.

The story “Delicate Edible Birds” best shows the strengths and weaknesses of Groff’s central preoccupation. It’s a self-conscious variation of Guy de Maupassant’s great story “Ball-of-Fat,” in which a woman is pressured into sleeping with her wartime captor so that she and her traveling companions will be let free. Groff’s version is very well-written and works up superb tension amongst its characters; but whereas “Ball-of-Fat,” with humor and brio, encompasses the hypocrisies of class, political ideology, and chivalry, as well as those of sexual mores, “Delicate Edible Birds” becomes so transfixed by its male v. female dichotomy that it loses track of all the other themes its World War II setting invites.

Even so, there are many rewards to this collection, and lots of promise for the future. Groff packs wonderful life into her sentences, and within its curtailed worldview there are many passages in Delicate Edible Birds of great beauty and pathos:

Grief is becoming a stranger to oneself. It is always a surprise to see how old, how womanly, one actually is. The crow’s-feet by the eyes, the lines by the mouth, how, translucent, a woman’s temples bare their tender blue veins to the world. That gold band hanging loose, so much flesh lost over the past few days. Down the empty corridor, ringing with voices and distant sounds of the hospital, steel and mop and rubber shoe. Into the vague green room, thick with shadows that waver like seaweed in the corners.

Even so lowly a creature as a man is apt to be taken by writing like that.

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