American Innovations – book review

American Innovations is a collection of 10 beautifully crafted stories by Rivka Galchen. The stories originally appeared in the magazines The New Yorker, and Harper’s MagazineOpen City and The Walrus.

The stories are all about women in their late twenties or thirties living in New York City.  These woman find themselves under pressure and they worry. They worry a lot.

Bunny and Cat 007

Women in that age group  have a lot more stress than men. They have all the same worries as men about career and money and finding an apartment. But then they have all the added pressure of having to look good, when or whether to have children, and how they are perceived by other people.

Interestingly, the pressure does not come from men, but from other women, especially their mothers. In one story entitled “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” the young woman in the story is a  writer who goes on a trip with her mother to accept a writing award.

The mother, instead of praising the success of her daughter says, ” I admire that you tell stories of make-believe people in worlds that don’t exist and have no relevance to how we live. That can be nice, but people also like things that are uplifting and practical.” Wow; talk about a backhanded compliment.

None of the women in these stories handles the stress very well. Their personalities are somewhere between obsessive and insane. Their thoughts have become so inwardly focused that they seem to live in their own worlds. Yet the reader likes all of the woman and wants very much for everything to work out well in their lives.

My favorite story is “Once an Empire” where the character is a a woman in her mid-thirties whose main enjoyment in life is to go out to late night movies alone. One night she gets back to her apartment at two in the morning only to find all the possessions in her apartment running away.  All the furniture, silverware, sheets and even an ironing board are climbing out of the window and marching down the street and out of her life on their own.

When her books march by her reaction is that, “My mother had never really liked my books. She’d said they kept me from real life, by which I think she meant men, or money, or both.”

The next day, her apartment is in fact totally empty and the police naturally think it is a robbery. The woman files  the usual police report, knowing what the world will think of her if she tells them the truth. She searches and eventually finds her possessions at a tag sale. Still believing  they have run away her reaction is that “What saddened me is that these things had tried to make it on their own and failed.” It seems that she is talking not so much about her possessions but about herself.

So the next time you are in New York and a beautiful young woman passes by completely absorbed in her own thoughts, don’t be jealous. Those thoughts may be  a lot more complex and troubled than you may imagine.

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