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Property: Stories Between Two Novellas


Property: Stories Between Two Novellas

The search for thematic unity in short story collections, even when it's promised, sometimes can prove challenging. That’s not the case with PROPERTY, Lionel Shriver’s volume of two novellas and 10 short stories that places its eponymous subject --- how we acquire it, use and often contend over it --- under a powerful microscope. Moving gracefully from one side of the Atlantic to the other, these incisive stories are noteworthy for Shriver’s keen, if often unsparing, assessment of how we relate to the things we own, their bite leavened by her cool wit and silky smooth prose.

Though it’s sometimes the case that novellas either feel like padded-out short stories or too-short novels that leave readers hungering for more, the two that bookend PROPERTY are markedly different yet fully satisfying works.

The first, "The Standing Chandelier," is an intense account of the emotional triangle that's created when two friends (and occasional lovers) for more than two decades since their college days find their relationship threatened after one of them decides to wed. Jillian Frisk’s unusual wedding gift to her tennis partner and confidante, Weston Babansky, and his wife, Paige --- an "emotionally lavish" work of art that "conveyed a tenderness toward its creator's life that would invariably foster in the viewer a tenderness toward his own” --- becomes the centerpiece of a psychological tennis match, in which the players must grapple with the dilemma of gift-giving etiquette that’s a proxy for profound questions of friendship and love.

"For anyone who thinks of property solely in terms of musty deeds or excess amounts of personal belongings stashed in rented storage units, Lionel Shriver’s exploration of that subject in all its complexity will serve as a refreshing corrective."

Perhaps because its stakes don’t seem as high, the second novella, “The Subletter,” doesn’t possess quite the same emotional resonance. Set in Belfast a few months after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that promised a political settlement to the decades-long violence known as "the Troubles," it traces the shadow conflict between two expatriate Americans --- Sara Moseley and Emer Branagh --- over the flat Emer sublets in anticipation of Sara’s extended relocation to Bangkok. When Sara returns from a brief visit to Boston to find that Emer has colonized the dwelling, the two reenact their own version of the Troubles, negotiating a sharing of their living space "with the wary caution of two paramilitary antagonists on mutual cease-fire."

For all the commonality of their subject matter, Shriver’s short stories are noteworthy for their variety. She’s capable of great tenderness, as in stories like “The Royal Male,” where Gordon Bosky, an unmarried mail carrier from Cornwall in his mid-50s who’s been disposing of mail he doesn’t want to deliver, impulsively decides to impersonate a childhood friend of a woman on his route. “Negative Equity,” the story of a London couple destined for divorce but for the fact that their home mortgage is underwater, and “The Self-Seeding Sycamore,” which describes the dispute between a middle-aged widow who “could not get older fast enough” and her sullen neighbor over the pestiferous tree that separates their properties, are similarly warmhearted.

But Shriver is better known as a satirist, and that gift emerges fully in “Domestic Terrorism," the story of a suburban Atlanta couple --- would-be empty nesters approaching the age of Medicare eligibility if their 31-year-old son’s “full-blown inertia” didn't have him firmly ensconced in the cozy split-level nest he shares with them. The Occupy Wall Street-like scene that ensues when Liam Fried-Garson’s parents challenge his “unshakable faith that, come what may, someone else would take care of him” and attempt to eject him from his comfortable abode crisply showcases some of the weirder elements of contemporary media and popular culture.

Shriver also displays a talent for the occasional chill-inducing story that might make Stephen King jealous. In “Repossession,” Helen Rutledge, a single tax accountant, purchases a semi-detached house in South London in a foreclosure sale, only to discover the terrifying hold its former owner continues to exert on the dwelling. “Kilifi Creek” is the story of a young woman --- an unwanted houseguest who survives a near drowning in Kenya --- who learns that fate sometimes has a way of exacting payment in full from those in its debt.

Even slighter stories like “The ChapStick,” which describes a fraught encounter between a son on the way to visit his dying father and the TSA over a meaningless item of personal property, or “Paradise to Perdition,” a portrait of how quickly the sybaritic lifestyle planned by an embezzler loses its charm, are pleasurable for the acuteness of Shriver's observations, as in how the latter's protagonist finds himself "flailing from a deficiency of friction, as if every surface in his surround had been sprayed with silicon and he couldn't get enough traction to walk across the floor."

For anyone who thinks of property solely in terms of musty deeds or excess amounts of personal belongings stashed in rented storage units, Lionel Shriver’s exploration of that subject in all its complexity will serve as a refreshing corrective.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 27, 2018

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas
by Lionel Shriver

  • Publication Date: April 23, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062697943
  • ISBN-13: 9780062697943