Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection of short stories, “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” is, on its surface, 10 stories about relationships. Naturally, there are misunderstandings and unmet expectations that lead to conflict. But to stop here would undermine her work; the judicious clarity of detail elevates each story.
Consider “Gender Studies,” the story that opens the collection. Nell, a gender studies professor, goes away for a conference and ends up in a fling with Luke, her airport shuttle driver and a Trump supporter. She has to confront her own political biases, but more importantly, so does the reader. “But by daylight it’s hard not to mock her own overblown emotions,” Sittenfeld writes.
In “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” a freshman at Dartmouth idolizes another girl, Rae Sullivan, and constructs her own version of Rae’s coolness. “I’d invented my original idea of Rae,” she says, thinking “that really, the only person who perceived Rae as cool at all was me. And she hadn’t pretended; I had misconstrued.” Often in Sittenfeld’s stories the conflict comes from a character’s self-deception. Sittenfeld frequently asks us to deconstruct the labels we give one another.
“Bad Latch” takes on the jealousy between new mothers whose lives intersect in mommy groups, while twin stories “The World Has Many Butterflies” and “Plausible Deniability” deal with infidelity in close relationships. In all three instances, Sittenfeld’s ear is acutely trained on the subtle notes of betrayal and truth. Her prose reveals her characters’ fears and indiscretions carefully. “Unless I tell you otherwise, you should assume we’re in total agreement,” one character in “The World Has Many Butterflies” says to another, when actually nothing could be further from the truth.
Imbalance of power is another recurring motif, echoing the political unease that opens and closes the book. In “A Regular Couple,” two honeymooning couples realize that the wives knew each other in high school. At play within each relationship is an issue of uneven control; the wives also share a leftover “mean girls” dynamic.
Power is an issue again in “Off the Record,” a story about a new mother interviewing a celebrity; it reveals much about the power in women’s choices. In “The Prairie Wife,” Sittenfeld plays with the reader’s expectations of gender while exploring a character’s obsession with a Pioneer Woman-like blogger.
Sittenfeld’s collection speaks to how even happy lives can be underscored by conflict and unease. These are short stories that show how self-doubt can lead to mistrust and deception that wrecks relationships. But Sittenfeld’s prose makes them a treat — there’s something about, to borrow a phrase, “the purity of her cynicism,” and the clarity of her characters’ open desires.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
You Think It, I'll Say It
By: Curtis Sittenfeld.
Publisher: Random House, 226 pages, $27.
Event: 7 p.m. May 8, Barnes & Noble, Galleria, Edina.