Hello, friends and fellow readers. I have another book review hosted by my favorite imaginary cousins. This time they are discussing a collection of short stories titled The Hypothetical Girl, written by Elizabeth Cohen and published by Other Press.
I’ve known Elizabeth (virtually because we’ve never met) for a few years now. She was introduced to me by one of my own cousins. I loved these stories in The Hypothetical Girl, finding each story to be almost like a novel in its depth and complexity. I hope you enjoy the review and, even more, hope that you’ll go ahead and pick up your own copy.
Melissa gazed at the softcover book on the kitchen table. Her cousins, Mary and Maggie, were moving about, shadows at her periphery. They would be a small group tonight for their occasional book club meeting. Just the three of them. “Just as well,” Melissa thought as she picked up the book and leafed through its pages.
She liked the feel of the book, the cover a bit more substantial than the usual paperback, the cover design eye-catching in its simplicity. The Hypothetical Girl, a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Cohen, had been a challenging but rewarding read for Melissa. She was interested to know how her cousins felt about it.
Mary set a large plate of iced vanilla scones in the middle of the table and promptly took one. While she bit into it, Maggie set tall mugs of hot sweet tea around.
Maggie sat down and looked across the table at Melissa. “So, I really enjoyed reading short stories this time. Especially this collection. What a wonderful imagination Elizabeth Cohen has! She takes ordinary people and puts them in extraordinary circumstances, some totally born from the imagination, like with … ” Maggie paused here as she took the book from Melissa. “With “People Who Live Far, Far Away.” I mean, who would believe that a guy you met online is a yak farmer from Iceland. It’s possible, but–”
Melissa grabbed the book back from Maggie, startling her cousin. For some reason, she wanted to hold it. “And she has a poetic voice,” Melissa added. She began again to browse through the book, wondering where to begin.
“I loved the story, “Death by Free Verse.” Quite a tour de force, don’t you think? It has laugh-at-loud humor, poetry, a poignant story, and then the ending! Ha! She ends with a limerick, a twist on the character that you should have seen coming but didn’t.” Mary was grateful for Cohen’s humor, in full abundance in some stories, subtle in others.
Melissa nodded. Yes, that story, early in the collection was fun to read but deceptive because some of the later stories were darker.
“Did either of you go online and check out some of these websites mentioned in the stories. Of course, I assumed they weren’t real, but I couldn’t resist trying a couple of them. I mean, flirtypants.com? You’d think someone would have bought that domain name. I’m just glad I’m not on the dating scene anymore. Good grief. I can’t imagine trying to find a soul mate through an online dating.” Mary froze and then turned back to her scone, her cheeks blushing as she realized her faux pas. She could feel the glares of Maggie and Melissa.
“Yes, Mary, how fortunate you are,” Melissa said, her voice a sliver of ice. She took a sip of her hot tea and counted in her head to ten. She wasn’t sure about Maggie, but she was tired of having her marital status as “widow.” And yet she couldn’t blame Mary. “And lucky for you we like Randy and approve of him.” She caught Mary’s eye and winked. Mary blinked in response.
Melissa decided to let her cousin off the hook. “Mary has a point. It seems that even with the internet, it’s not easy to find someone to love, much less someone to love you in return. But what I found really intriguing about these stories is that it’s not all about finding one’s soul mate. In the process of seeking love or even just community, these characters all have a lot to learn about themselves.
“One story, “The Opposite of Love,” moved me more than the others. Rita isn’t looking for a mate really. Here she is diagnosed with cancer, the same time as getting the job of her dreams. That’s bad enough, but she also has a mother who is always comparing her to her cheerier, more upbeat sister, making her feel worse about herself.” Melissa paused. That was the part of the story that pained her the most, provoking memories of her own mother critically comparing her to her two cousins. Why couldn’t she be more outgoing like Mary? Why wasn’t she as sweet and patient as Maggie? Why did she always sulk when all her mother was trying to do was help her improve herself?
“Oh, that story got to me, too,” Mary said, breaking into Melissa’s thoughts. “Frankly, I think the mother was a bitch. I mean, I think she loved Rita, but she went about it the wrong way, making Rita’s cancer more about her than her own daughter.”
“It made my heart ache that the only solace she seemed to get was from a online community of cancer patients and survivors. You know, it’s one of those stories that you keep thinking about. Like, how Rita’s ex-boyfriend had once told her that the opposite of love wasn’t hate, it was indifference. I got such a chill when I read those lines.” Maggie reached for another scone. Talking about sad things always made her hungry.
“I did too. And I think it’s the stories where the author is really reaching, really trying to describe something, a feeling, a void, it’s those stories that have stayed with me. Like “The Opposite of Love.” Like the title story, “The Hypothetical Girl.” You know, I felt that way once. In the story, Emily starts disappearing after her divorce. She becomes more and more invisible, at least to herself. But I felt like I was disappearing while I was married, living there in San Diego, alone so much while he went on one tour after another, as if he didn’t want to be with me, or just didn’t know I was there anymore.”
For a few moments, the cousins, bound by their years of growing up together, almost like sisters, closed their eyes and let Melissa just breathe. Mary and Maggie still did not know all that had happened while Melissa lived on the other side of the U.S. with her quiet, stern military husband. He had often seemed indifferent to her. The opposite of love is indifference. And indifference can drive some people crazy.
Melissa leaned forward and grabbed her first scone of the evening. She smiled at her cousins, wanting to relieve them of worry. “This collection has fifteen stories in it. I don’t think we can cover them all tonight.”
“Well, my favorite is “Stupid Humans.” I mean, a love story about a polar bear and a deer who met on thosestupidhumans.com?” Maggie shook her head and laughed softly. “It’s a funny but sad story. It’s a clever story about climate change, about how these two animals are kept apart because they’re losing their habitat and they’re starving and don’t have the energy to … to … ”
“To text each other. Yes, a sad story but funny when you try to visualize a polar bear and a deer texting each other.” Melissa drained her mug of tea and got up to make some more.
“So … ?” Mary drew out her question. There was so much more to say and think about The Hypothetical Girl. Whether it’s Chloe giving the man she met online a second look and thus a second chance, or Alana deciding to keep her virtual love at bay, behind the computer screen where they were be both safe from heartbreak. Or Al, whose true love is a little girl because with her, his life is complete, he is a father.
“So? Limerence. I learned a new word, and I was an English major.” Maggie heard Melissa laugh behind her.
Mary was just swallowing the dregs of her tea. She coughed. “Ah, yes, Larry and limerence. It’s like, once you know what’s wrong with you, then you can finally heal yourself.”
“And wasn’t that a relief. I really thought Larry was going to end up as a train wreck.” Melissa sat down and waited for the kettle to whistle. “And that’s the other thing about these stories, or actually this author. She writes from the points of view of so many different characters. Men, women, mothers, children, fathers-to-be.”
“Polar bears. Deer.” Maggie laughs along with her cousins. “Indeed, I felt I was entering an entire, unique world with each story. Each one had a novel’s worth of complexity.”
Melissa and Mary murmured their agreement. The kettle whistled. Mary got up and moved the kettle off the burner. Melissa grabbed the mugs. Maggie opened the book and leafed through until she found what she wanted, from the story “Limerence”: “There is power in a story made of words and language.” She raised one eyebrow and thought to herself, “there is power in these fifteen stories of words and language.”
Thank you for reading this far, fellow book lover. Now go forth and get yourself a copy of The Hypothetical Girl.