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In this new collection of 11 stories in or about the Sunshine State, Lauren Groff demonstrates her lyrical, intractable love for her adopted home. Most of these tales take place in Florida, with two set in France and one in Brazil, and most are about women trying to find or secure their footing in an ever-changing, sometimes beautiful and sometimes frightening environment.

In “Ghosts and Empties,” a harried wife and mother takes solace in her evening walk around her burgeoning neighborhood, where she can spy on her neighbors and their lives: “On my nighttime walks, the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I’m the silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music.” In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” one of the collection’s longer stories, a young Floridian named Jude has his life laid bare, as Groff describes his taciturn upbringing, and his journey to forge his own path that ironically brings him back to where it started. “Dogs Go Wolf” is about two young sisters struggling for survival on a remote barrier island after their mother has left them with a dodgy couple who end up abandoning the children as well. To keep their fears at bay, the older girl tells fanciful stories to her younger sister.

"Any of these beautiful stories could be spun off into a novel of its own. Each features complicated characters with vibrant backstories, facing complex issues, ranging from everyday anxiety to homelessness."

A slightly inebriated woman is visited by visions of her ex-husband, ex-boyfriend and father in “Eyewall.” A married couple from the west coast of Florida visits friends in the French countryside, with shades of the Patrick Melrose novels, in “For the Love of God, for the Love of God.” Helena, the protagonist in “Salvador,” is a middle-aged woman who is the caregiver to her elderly mother in Miami, but for a few weeks out of every year, she gets to travel to an exotic location (this time, a small city in Brazil) and live out loud. She sees plays, goes to museums, and beds various local men. On this particular trip, she finds herself trapped in a small bodega with a lascivious shopkeeper during a storm, with uncharacteristic results.

Two popular themes emerge in Groff’s stories. The first is the anxiousness of the modern woman, as best exemplified in “Flower Hunters,” in which an agitated mother is told by a friend that she “needs to take a break” from her: “She is frightened that there aren’t many people on the earth she can stand. The truth is, Meg had said, back when she was still a best friend, you love humanity almost too much, but people always disappoint you. Meg is someone who loves both humanity and people…”

The other theme is life on the outer fringes of our society, and how many of us are just one paycheck away from it, as in the searingly honest “Above and Below,” in which a former teaching assistant finds herself homeless, living in her car, and then a tent city on the outskirts of town. Groff details how this adaptation can easily happen in this day and age. “Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose,” the indigent narrator thinks. She may be down and out, but in Groff’s hands, she’s not without dignity.

Any of these beautiful stories could be spun off into a novel of its own. Each features complicated characters with vibrant backstories, facing complex issues, ranging from everyday anxiety to homelessness. Groff cogently displays the influence of her adopted home state of Florida, with its humid, volatile weather, as well as its lush flora and fauna, and uses it to imbue her stories with an unmistakable imprint that’s all her own --- one that is cementing her rightful place as this generation’s Kate Chopin.

As the couple in “Snake Stories” ponder, “You think there are still good people in the world? Oh yes, he said. Billions. It’s just that the bad ones make so much more noise.” Let’s drown out that noise by proclaiming Lauren Groff to be one of the best writers working today.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 15, 2018

by Lauren Groff

  • Publication Date: May 21, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634521
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634529