Review

Delicate Edible Birds: And Other Stories

by Lauren Groff

THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON, in which Lauren Groff adroitly
reimagined her hometown of Cooperstown, New York, and the novels of
James Fenimore Cooper, was one of the most widely acclaimed debut
novels of 2008. Now Groff follows up its success with DELICATE
EDIBLE BIRDS. Almost all of the short stories in this collection
somehow manage to cover as broad and bold a canvas as any novel,
often exploring the shape of a whole life in just a few dozen
pages.

Not surprisingly, given Groff's obvious affinity for history
demonstrated in THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON, the stories collected
here range widely over time and place, which helps contribute to
the expansive feel of her short fiction. The opening story, "Lucky
Chow Fun," takes place in Groff's fictional Templeton and is set in
the present or the very recent past; others, however, explore the
ravages of the 1918 influenza epidemic, the mixed blessings of the
1970s women's movement, the dread enfolding Paris's denizens during
the Nazi invasion in World War II, and even the vicissitudes of
fortune among the privileged classes in an unnamed
dictatorship.

Unlike much short fiction, which often conveys a turning point
through a single encounter, utterance or even image, Groff's
stories frequently find their meaning in the shape of a whole life,
reading more like imagined biographies than typical modern short
stories. Groff's gift is in imparting meaning and beauty to what
could be mere chronicles.

"Majorette," for example, traces the fortunes of three
generations of women in the same family, vividly illustrating how
their socially acceptable options --- ranging from having a large
number of children at a young age to starring as a baton twirler to
excelling on the volleyball court --- influence their future
directions and their possibilities for happiness." In "Sir
Fleeting," a woman's history of failed relationships is contrasted
with (and perhaps perpetuated by) her periodic encounters with a
mysterious, almost unbelievably romantic figure. In "Blythe," a
lonely, bored housewife fails to live up to her own potential when
she becomes entangled with Blythe, a beautiful, creative but
hopelessly imbalanced young mother when both take a poetry course.
The ravages of Blythe's emotional demands on her friends and family
are traced over the course of years.

As in "Blythe," a current of sadness and tragedy runs through
many of the stories, often relating to the elusiveness of love. In
"L. DeBard and Aliette," a champion swimmer and poet, and his pupil
--- a fragile, crippled heiress --- secretly fall in love, only to
be thwarted by obstacles both natural and human-made. Likewise,
"Watershed" is a heartbreaking story about a woman who, after
several failed relationships in the big city, returns to her small
town and marries a childhood friend, only to perpetuate discord
that results in tragedy.

The protagonist in "Watershed" is a storyteller whose pastime is
"selecting a few strands from many and weaving them into cloth,"
but whose penchant for story still can't make sense of the tragedy
that befalls her young family. Many of Groff's female heroines
share this desire to comprehend the world through story. The young
narrator of "Lucky Chow Fun" views her experience through the lens
of horrifically dark fairy tales. In the title story, probably the
strongest one of the collection, a group of stranded journalists
try to find meaning in the unimaginable horrors of war.

These characters often turn to story to find richness, solace
and meaning in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances ---
much like Groff herself.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 29, 2010

Delicate Edible Birds: And Other Stories
by Lauren Groff

  • Publication Date: January 27, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Voice
  • ISBN-10: 1401340865
  • ISBN-13: 9781401340865