Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

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The rest of her life: looming, open-mouthed. She was heading straight for it on autopilot but couldn’t recall having chosen or engineered it.

This is an incredibly engaging debut collection of stories, which I devoured! My only complaint is it ended too soon, I wanted more. The writing is beautiful, it brings light to dark thoughts, it speaks of the intelligent minds of women and their choices. The happy pink cover betrays the depth of the female characters within perfectly, just like the world does. I do love the cover though, it’s simplicity, it reminds me of doodles in a journal. There is a line in the very first story, Like That Sickness and Health, that shocked my insides, there are mothers like this (some can’t help themselves really and others are a whole other nightmare) “…her mother, for some reason, making problems in the few places in her life where there weren’t problems already-“, I know there are women out there who feel that like a boulder in their stomach. Mothers can make things so much harder sometimes. Sickness as a study, what afflicts one afflicts in some ways all. Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely pins the female psyche in place for perfect study from the start. This has become one of my favorite short stories collection, and I can’t wait to see what this author rustles up in the future. There is something rich about pain for women, these college girls in particular, how they use it or ignore it and soldier on- this is one of the best short stories I ever read. Pain as expression, a language for what we can’t or won’t say. As  Mia works on her dissertation, “A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Factitious Disorders on the Social Lives of College-Attending Females”, she learns more about herself in the midst of these needy, suffering girls and their ‘exaggerated symptoms’.

What does happiness look like? Ambition? Love? Women make choices, sometimes just to feel moments, not to erase what already is. Not everything has to build and intensify, though often they do grow out of our control, these desires. In Happy Like That, Elaine tries to understand her dead friend’s secret affair. How she misses Lillian’s raw honesty, her ‘ease’ that Elaine longed to ‘soak up’. A friendship of opposites, the sort that pulls at you to judge the world less harshly.

I was absolutely charmed by Like This American Moon, “the foreign girl is coming”, it smacks of expectations and the ridiculous assumptions so many make about foreigners, more so when you’re stagnant and haven’t seen anything of the world. Take heart! Those of us who have been abroad and visited by family from other countries know full well over there, wherever there may be, hilarity over how they imagine Americans are can ensue too. Americans aren’t the only ones making outlandish assumptions, though we do make an art form of it. How does author Ashley Wurzbacher manage to tickle me with her characters humor and at the same time knock me senseless with sorrow? Some people never go anywhere, not because they are lost in a swamp of ignorance but because they are forced into a limited existence, so often born into it. You can love a way of life, even while you are dying inside. I think twelve year old Jean has a lot figured out before her time, and largely due to the disappointment adults dish out to her, I warmed to her fast.

I can’t crow loudly enough to do this collection justice, it’s not just for the women, though it is about them. Is it the world breaking us, or are we the ones doing the breaking of our own spirit? It depends on circumstance. To be young again and desperate to understand just who you are now, who you are going to be, to feel the rush of first moments like love as if it’s bound to cleave you in two, how do we figure out anything? When do we? How do we get to a point where we fizzle out, or lack ambition? When do we get scared of all the dangerous things that can happen, like Robin in The Problem With You Is That? Why must women so often be the villain, forced into taking a stance to keep others safe? This isn’t a collection about what women are supposed to be, marching together in perfect harmony cocksure about life and their place in it, oh no- these are women who haven’t figured things out, or young girls hungry for identity or sick with expectations and wanting to curl up in the comfort of illness. Women who are just trying to keep people safe, or life together, or figure out what direction the wind is going to blow them next time. Age isn’t the identifier of wisdom, a young girl can be shrewd in the assessment of where she stands socially in the world. She can understand her damaged father more than her mother, who long ago left. Women are wise creatures, but we are a bit faulty sometimes and maybe it’s because the world demands so much of us. Hell yes, read this collection! I have a new favorite author!

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

 

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