Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.Read more
When she approaches a table of strangers she mistakenly assumes have crashed her friend’s birthday party in “White Women LOL,” the first of three stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Help Yourself,” Jill is aware she is “trying harder than usual — harder than she would have with a group of white people — to seem friendly and diplomatic.” Her motivations for dispelling the group are honest, her methodology rather more questionable, and the situation devolves into a cataclysmic misunderstanding. Her tense exchange with the group is recorded, and proves incendiary online, establishing her as the latest pin-up of white privilege, which is a label Jill marinates over, recollecting every interaction she’s ever had with a black person as she tries to establish her place on the spectrum of racism, much to the chagrin of her blasé husband, who’s dismissive of her plan for redemption, which involves finding the missing shih tzu of a local black celebrity.
In “Creative Differences,” a young photographer named Melissa wrestles with art and commerce, deliberating over the compromises she must make to achieve her ultimate goal. A while back her series on black pre-schoolers went viral, and now a producer from Wichita is shooting a documentary on American creativity, and Melissa is one of its subjects. The opportunity offers great exposure, but Melissa is adamant brushing her teeth on camera — as mandated in her contract — is a seismic concession, and a devastating blow to her artistic integrity.
“Great literature was never written by a beautiful woman,” Ruthie heard more than one in her postgrad creative writing course. Many years later, now a bestselling author of women’s fiction, and the narrator of “Show, Don’t Tell,” she reminisces on her anxieties clashing with the gallingly indestructible entitlement and elitism of her male cohorts.
The women at the centre of Sittenfeld’s stories are navigating their aspirations alongside society’s expectations, complications and inequalities. These bite-sized snapshots of their lives offer nuanced commentary on the complexities of gender politics, race and commercialism. I just wish the collection was heftier.
Number Of Pages: 96
Published: 29th September 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK
Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel is more than a dazzling and seductive alternate history about a world in which Hillary Rodham decided not to marry Bill Clinton to maintain her independence. It’s a searing commentary on the unjust compromises and aspersions faced by female politicians compared to their male counterparts, and how much harder it is for women to make their way in politics, or any facet of public life; any walk of life, in fact.
Hillary is merely the vehicle Sittenfeld uses to showcase this inequality; but saturating her fiction in the texture of Hillary’s reality, with one major twist, adds a brilliant vitality to the work, and a layer of verisimilitude that using a totally fabricated character would not have allowed. This narrative decision is utterly seductive, and Sittenfeld clearly had great fun contemplating the seismic ramifications that one different decision might’ve produced. Where is Donald Trump in this new world? Barrack Obama? Indeed, what actually happened to Bill Clinton; did he achieve his political ambitions without Hillary as his first lady? Sittenfeld answers all of these questions, and more. I was addicted to learning more, and incredibly impressed by her ability to humanise Hillary, and turn her into a sympathetic character rather than a caricature. I’ve no doubt it’ll be one of my favourite books of the year.
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 19th May 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd