I don’t have an academic approach to short stories; I simply love them, as a reader, as a writer, and always have done. I can’t really pinpoint why in an intelligent way. The ones I love the most are quite simple. I don’t know why I like them so much. I don’t think it’s as easily explained as having a short attention span; it can’t be, because you need to pay attention to short stories, because they are dotted with clues and every little word can be loaded. I think it’s more that I’m attracted to the idea that short stories are scenes, moments in time, and in a way that seems like a true reflection to me of the way that life is; a series of moments, collected; little stories, scattered together. The opportunity to create my own imaginary anthology is a rather lovely one, and a real indulgence (thank you, Jonathan). I suppose seeing my choices here altogether makes it obvious, what sorts of themes I’m interested in, which are the themes I explore in my own stories in Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love. I make no apology for the stories I’ve gathered here, that are almost all about longing, and intimacy; love, in all its messiness.
I adore this gorgeous, gorgeous story of a young woman secretly in love with her flatmate. Written in second person, it captures the torment and tenderness of longing in such a simple yet moving, and also funny but not too funny, way. Every now and again, while telling some sort of potentially humorous anecdote, like going to buy a bed with the flatmate (“This is a great activity for you, it’s almost like being engaged”) she lets slip these lines which are so beautiful and lovingly-written that I can’t help but feel my heart break a little. Like: “Wonder if you feel too comfortable with him to truly be in love. But then he licks the fudge off his thumb and smiles at you, his hair still ruffled from the wind outside. He is the love of your life, no question about it.” I mean: doesn’t it just do something to you?
First published in the New Yorker, September 1992 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Single, Carefree, Mellow, Fourth Estate, 2015
I have lost count of how many times I’ve read Polly Rosenwaike’s collection. I love the way she writes so beautifully and so tenderly about the interior lives of women and love; it speaks to me very much. It’s hard to choose between my two favourites – ‘Tanglewood’, about a woman meeting the unrequited love of her student days many years later, and ‘Parental Fade’. But I’ve gone for ‘Parental Fade’, because it’s just timeless and pitch perfect. It’s written in the first-person plural, about a couple trying to sleep train their newborn baby. In her beautiful, spare prose, Rosenwaike captures all the exhaustion and magic of that sleep-deprived newborn baby time in such a poignant way, as the couple takes it in turns to sit by the baby’s crib, thinking about the future and a time when all this will have faded, like “jeans and hair dye. Paper and summer. Music, clapping, laughter.” The ending of this story is just so, so beautiful, it truly did bring tears to my eyes.
First published in the New Delta Review, 2013, and available to read here. Collected in Look How Happy I’m Making You, Doubleday 2019
Jenny Zhang’s stories in Sour Heart are connected by the theme of familial love, but a particular kind of familial love when your parents are immigrants; a sort of fierce protectiveness that you both want to run from but also can’t live without. ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ is about just this. The narrator is frequently mean to her little brother, who has a stammer and can’t say her name right; at the same time, she is sad when he grows out of the stammer, because in a way, she is no longer his, or he is no longer hers, and it means he is growing up: “I didn’t want my brother to grow up, just like my mother hadn’t wanted me to grow up nine years ago. I was the same as her–someone who nurtured my pain as if it could stop things from changing.” This weird, at times gross, story left me feeling like I wanted to call my own brothers up and tell them how much they mean to me.
First published in Rookie magazine, 2011 and available to read here; collected in Sour Heart, Bloomsbury, 2017
This collection is so dear to me, partly because it was one of the first times I read stories in which I met characters with a similar (although not identical) cultural heritage to myself; at times, I felt like they were going through things I had gone through and this feeling was strange, unsettling but also weirdly reassuring. I love the whole book, but ‘Hema and Kaushik’, one of the saddest star-crossed love stories of all time (I would go as far as saying), is the one that haunts me the most. The first time I read it, I was wretched afterwards; tears down my face without even realising. It is almost impossibly beautiful to me. So elegantly written, so brilliantly weaved, as of course it would be by Jhumpa Lahiri. So tragic, yet so contained. Just perfect.
First published in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury, 2008
In lockdown I started taking long walks while listening to the New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, and the episode of Ann Patchett reading ‘The Proxy Marriage’ by Maile Meloy was one of my favourites. After listening to the story, I returned to look it up, and I have since read it again and again. What do I like about it so much? Well, there’s that theme of unrequited love (again). Plus the plot is so unusual and unlike anything I’ve read before – two teenagers, acting as proxies for couples who wanted to get married during the Iraq war. And I love that William got the ending he deserved. Most of all though, I just love how alive the two characters, William and Bridey, are; they come to life straight away and I can picture them so clearly. It’s such a lesson for short story writing really; how the tiniest details and gestures can say so much and paint a picture. I also love how Meloy so effortlessly moves through time, taking us through their teenage years to adulthood. Her tone and quality makes writing look so easy.
First published in the New Yorker, 2012
Technically not a short story, more like an essay, but something with a Katherine Heiny vibe; I loved this piece by Dolly Alderton, that I imagine captures something of the year or two we’ve just lived through. I love how she’s written about the pandemic in relation to, well, love, which is not often the lens it is viewed through. I’m happily married, so it’s not even as if I can relate to what she writes about being single, and yet even so I just think this piece is lovely, heartfelt and timely.
Published in The Cut, 2021
Everytime I read anything that Lucy Caldwell has written, I just sigh from the beauty of it. Impossible to choose from the whole collection but this one, about a woman flying home after her cousin’s funeral with her toddler, sitting next to a man, a complete stranger, who shows her kindness, and whom she briefly, irrationally considers going home with, just knocked the breath out of me. I find it devastatingly sad, and beautiful and believable. It captures for me exactly what a short story is about; a moment in time, a choice you must make; the haunting wonder of what if, what else might have happened if you chose differently.
First published in Intimacies, Faber, 2021; winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, listen to it being read here
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but when I read Girl, Woman, Other, I read it as a series of connected short stories, or at least that’s what it felt like to me; including the epilogue. Of course, you could argue that the epilogue doesn’t make sense to standalone on its own, but I think it does (and of course it’s even cleverer when you realise all the strands from all the previous stories are suddenly coming together). What I love about it is just how bursting with tenderness it is. In a way, to me at least, it reads like the love story of a woman in her eighties who finally finds a missing piece of herself; how it is about the importance of knowing yourself, of being together.
First published as part of Girl, Woman, Other, Penguin 2019
So many Munro stories to choose from, but this, about a woman remembering an affair decades after it happened, is up there in my favourites. What I love about it is how, as ever, immense the story is; how so very specific; all the scope of a novel, as is always the case with an Alice Munro short story. As far as I know, this is one of her lesser known stories and what I love most about it is the way she just drops the affair in, incidental, as if it was nothing; upon first reading, I had no idea it was coming. And in a way, the affair was nothing – it didn’t spell the end of her marriage, there was no big confrontation – but in another way, it was also everything. And it’s precisely this – that a moment can be both incidental and yet monumental, a moment that can change you without even realising it – that I love and have tried to learn from Alice Munro’s stories.
First published in the The New Yorker, February 2001, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, McClelland and Stewart in 2001
This Lucia Berlin story, about two sisters who go away together, is one that I have returned to many times over the years. Partly because of the writing style and the craft of it, partly also simply because of the storyline. I love the way it opens, almost like a film, a wide shot of the hotel where the sisters are staying, then the guests, then all the sights and sounds that bring the story to life, and make it so vivid and electric as is Berlin’s style. There’s a couple of lines here I underscored years ago that I just love for the sounds: the “Snap snap of dealt cards. Mrs Wacher’s hmms. Two no trump. The sizzle of the surf, ice cubes in their glasses.” What I like so much is the way the setting is created, and how from there, the camera moves and then we settle on the two sisters themselves. It’s so atmospheric, rich in description, yet not overdone. I quite like all the gossipy hotel guests too, watching the two sisters and wondering what they are doing together. I find stories about sisters endlessly fascinating; this one is no exception.
Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador, 2015
An agonising story about a married woman, Julie, who falls for her husband’s colleague only to completely misread his intentions. It’s excruciating to read, partly because of the way that Sittenfeld writes the build up; we see Julie’s desire, we know how much she likes this guy, and yet we also know, before she does, that she is going to be crushed. And yet even though we sort of know what’s going to happen, the tension is so taut, and so irresistible. Again, one of those stories that makes everything look so easy when really it’s so cleverly executed.
Collected in You Think it, I’ll Say it, Black Swan/Random House, 2018
We all surely know and love Olive Kitteridge and I think about this story, or chapter if you prefer to see it that way, so much. Olive is living alone after the death of her husband, and falling in love again, when she least expects to. I guess in a way, the beauty of this story comes from knowing Olive in all the stories-in-chapters before; it is so unlikely for her to feel this way, and yet here she is; changed, finally softened somehow. I find some of the last few passages just beautiful:
His blue eyes were watching her now; she saw in them the vulnerability, the invitation, the fear, as she sat down quietly, placed her open hand on his chest, felt the thump thump of his heart, which would someday stop, as all hearts do. But there was no someday now, there was only the silence of this sunny room.
First published as part of Olive Kitteridge, Scribner, 2008