Here’s what I love about Emma Straub’s collection of short stories, Other People We Married. All the stories are about me. Even the ones that can’t be about me, because I’ve never been to Italy, or been a gay man, or been the teenaged fairy of a cheesy, enchanted roadside attraction.
As I read each of the twelve stories in the collection, I felt intensely connected to the characters, their ordinary lives so full of love, longing, joy and regret that it’s all they can do to maintain the surface calm. And it’s there, deep inside their heads and hearts (where Emma Straub firmly plants you), that everything is familiar, even if the New York neighborhood or the Wisconsin suburb is not. Her characters’ observations and the things they say are so telling and true, and yet so much of their stories lies in their silences, in the things they never quite say aloud, sometimes even in the spaces between the words that Emma Straub writes.
One of my favorite stories, “A Map of Modern Palm Springs” involves two sisters who meet in Palm Springs for their first adult vacation together. In the airport, before they’ve even spoken, the younger sister sees the older one and tries to remember whose idea the trip was, “how it came to pass that tickets were purchased and a hotel room booked, when clearly (it was already so clear) this should have been yet another generous, twinkling thought that floated away as soon as it was spoken aloud.”
OPWM is a book of observations. Each story takes place in a different city, so there are quirky, travel-guide sort of details from Brooklyn to Palm Beach, from Palm Springs to Rome. There are hilarious comparisons of culture, as when Sophie, transplanted from New York City to a suburb in Wisconsin, asks her husband, after a neighborhood committee gathering, “Don’t you think that if that party had been in New York, the cookies would have been an ironic stroke of genius?” He agrees, producing a pilfered cookie from his pocket. “Unironic cookies taste better,” he says.
You can feel the entire lives of these characters spreading out beyond the pages Emma Straub has actually written. Her stories are like road maps delineating points of interest we might otherwise miss, showing how a turn in the road, a passing conversation, an innocuous choice, led each character to this place, “this night that is different from all other nights.”
My favorite story of all is Abraham’s Enchanted Forest, in which Gretta goes to high school like any teenage girl, but also works part-time at her parents’ enchanted forest roadside attraction. Abraham is her father, and her mother is Judy, and Gretta’s life with them is sweet and odd and utterly unfamiliar to me. Yet, I remember what it’s like to be her, to love my mother and be overwhelmed by my father. To kiss the boy who promises escape even as I love all the details of the life I want so desperately to escape from. I even know what it’s like to wear the hand-sewn glittery wings. Not because I have, but because Emma Straub wanted me to know.
Judy Clement Wall is restless, insatiably curious and prone to believing impossible things. You can find her here.