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Fresh Complaint: Stories

Review

Fresh Complaint: Stories

Somehow Jeffrey Eugenides manages to balance a razor-sharp insight and a humane gentleness when laying bare the souls of his characters. FRESH COMPLAINT is a collection of 10 short stories, eight previously published, dating from 1989 to 2017. In examining both human relationships and the human interior life, Eugenides is sure-handed and skilled, and his stories, even the darkest among them, are not without wit and some humor. Although he is known primarily as a novelist, his latest work demonstrates that he is on solid ground in a shorter form as well; every word is well chosen and every story finely paced and presented.

First up is the poignant “Complainers,” the story of the quietly transformative friendship of two women, Cathy and Della. Despite their differences in age and personality, they bonded years ago over books and Weight Watchers. Forty years later, they are living far apart and Della is in the beginning stages of dementia. Feeling helpless and responsible, Cathy travels to Connecticut to be with Della. But that helplessness turns into determination as the two drive through winter weather to Massachusetts, giving a degree of freedom and autonomy back to Della. It is a tender and heartfelt story but never sappy or saccharine. The specter of death looms large, but it is not a morose tale either. Instead, it is a powerful ode to friendship and the interesting paths that the passage of time wears into lives spent caring and supporting one another.

"FRESH COMPLAINT is perceptive...and quite enjoyable, even when taking readers to difficult and uncomfortable places. Eugenides once again proves himself to be a smart and able storyteller."

Many of the characters found here are less than kind and open-hearted, though. In “Baster,” Wally Mars swaps out his own sperm for that of the man his ex-girlfriend was planning to impregnate herself with. His sadness over the child of his she aborted years earlier is understandable, but his actions now are beyond cringeworthy. It’s an absurd situation that Eugenides treats with the right amount of seriousness. “Find the Bad Guy” deals with the broken marriage of a blustery radio consultant and his green-card-seeking wife. In the therapy that Charlie D. intellectualizes without really taking to heart, he learns that the habit of finding the bad guy to blame in every marital conflict is unhealthy, though hard to break. Unable to take responsibility for his actions and behavior, he cannot save his family.

This is a theme that runs through many of these stories --- the inability to make the fundamental changes or good decisions needed, and instead allow dreams, illusions, regrets, vanities and desires to rule. In “Early Music,” a man brings his family into dangerous debt to hold onto a clavichord. A father squanders his resources on a derelict property in “Timeshare.” And in “Capricious Gardens,” a middle-aged man and a young woman both lust after Annie and ignore the suicidal confessions of a candid companion.

“Air Mail,” like “Complainers,” is about moving toward death. It is hard to overstate just how good this strange and beguiling tale is. Mitchell is a bit of a seeker by nature. Confined to a hut on a South Asian beach with a crippling case of diarrhea, he begins a weeks-long fast in order to starve out the amoebas that are making him sick. But in his illness and relative isolation, he finds a peace and clarity. He spends his time drinking black tea, sleeping and composing letters to his worried family. Refusing western medicine and traditional remedies alike, Mitchell actually starts to feel better and is finally drawn out of his hut into the waiting community of strangers celebrating on the beach. His quest for enlightenment and meaning is self-interested and wry, until it becomes sorrowful and tragic, remaining ever lovely. Eugenides is in fine form here, close to perfect, and “Air Mail” is the best story in an all-around fantastic book.

FRESH COMPLAINT is perceptive, if not inventive, and quite enjoyable, even when taking readers to difficult and uncomfortable places. Eugenides once again proves himself to be a smart and able storyteller.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 6, 2017

Fresh Complaint: Stories
by Jeffrey Eugenides

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374203067
  • ISBN-13: 9780374203061