by Elizabeth Spencer
You Think It, I’ll Say It is Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth book and first collection of short stories. Before I attended a reading for this book, my only prior experience of Sittenfeld’s writing was her 2008 novel American Wife (a fictional account of Laura Bush’s life), which I enjoyed. I purchased You Think It on the strength of the first story, “Gender Studies,” which Sittenfeld read from and discussed with the event host, Jennifer Weiner. Originally published in The New Yorker in August 2016, “Gender Studies” was also included in 2017’s Best American Short Stories. Overall, however, I found this collection to be uneven. While I enjoyed several of the stories immensely, I didn’t find myself engaged with others.
Sittenfeld has many strengths as a writer, although some of them are better suited to the novel than short fiction. The stories I liked best (with one exception) were written in third-person, which showcases Sittenfeld’s astute observations about the way we live now. For example, in this passage from “The World Has Many Butterflies,” the protagonist Julie re-examines her feelings about her life in the wake of a surprising new crush:
“There was a physical sensation Julie often had near the end of parties or kids’ soccer games, what she thought of as tired face–she’d exerted herself, received little in return, and now wished to be alone, or at least to be in her car, with only children, and preferably only ones to whom she was related–and this sensation seemed, after she and Graham started playing I’ll Think It, You Say It, like nothing but boredom. Was it possible she had been bored for the entire time she and Keith had lived in Houston? For her entire adulthood?”
This is also the story from which the book takes its title. In “Butterflies” as well as the other nine stories, “You Think It, I’ll Say It” encapsulates the characters’ attempts at connection, which are often thwarted by miscommunication. Exploring the divide between what people think is socially acceptable and what they (especially women) actually feel, Sittenfeld writes this about Julie:
“Was [she] a huge bitch who usually managed to keep her bitchiness concealed? She truly didn’t know. In the eight years she and Keith had lived in Houston, she had never talked like this to anyone. She was simultaneously shocked by the conversation, shocked to be having it with a man, shocked by its effortlessness, and not surprised at all; it was as if she’d been waiting to be recognized, as if she’d never sung in public, then someone had handed her a microphone and she’d opened her mouth and released a full-throated vibrato.”
Sittenfeld’s characters are flawed but sympathetic, and readers who feel similarly misunderstood will delight in the humorously awkward situations the characters get into–and must find their way out of. For example, in “Gender Studies” a liberal arts professor looks down on her airport shuttle driver, a younger guy who displays misogynistic tendencies and plans to vote for Trump, only to find herself entangled with him over a misplaced driver’s license. Nell is surprised to find herself enjoying Luke’s company and I appreciated the fact that neither character comes off as more “right” or sympathetic than the other.
Yes, the 2016 election appears in two stories–in fact it bookends the collection with “Gender Studies” set before Trump wins the Republican nomination and the final story, “Do-Over,” beginning with a father texting his daughter about the election night results. However, Sittenfeld weaves current events and politics into the settings of her stories without becoming didactic.
Another feature of Sittenfeld’s writing I enjoyed is the way that tech appears in her characters’ lives as naturally as it does in our own. In “Gender Studies,” Nell pretends to send an email as a way to disengage from conversation and “accidentally discovers” on Facebook that her ex-partner and his new wife just had “a late breakfast of beignets this morning and, as of an hour ago, were strolling around the French Quarter.” In “Plausible Deniability,” a lawyer describes feeling “in my pocket, the ping of an incoming email. When I glance at the screen of my phone, I can see the first sentence, but I postpone reading the entire message. This way, an anticipatory pleasure–if I am being honest, the purest pleasure of my life these days–imbues the otherwise mundane six minutes it takes to ride the garage elevator to the lobby.”
How many things have we all “accidentally discovered” on social media, especially about ex-lovers and other people we look up because it’s both painful and satisfying, like scratching a mosquito bite until it bleeds? At the same time, our phones provide us with distraction and delight, a welcome reprieve from the mundanity of work and routine. Sittenfeld warmly captures the full spectrum of people’s feelings about technology.
The one thing I would’ve liked to see more of in these stories is a sense of place. Most of them take place in the midwest, and in “Bad Latch,” the narrator’s reaction to another woman’s plans for natural birth and stay-at-home motherhood is to say “Lest it seem like this class occurred in a place where you could get away with saying such things – Brooklyn, maybe, or Berkeley? – it didn’t. It occurred in Omaha, Nebraska.…” Yet Sittenfeld never delves deeper than that in describing the physical places where her characters live and how they relate to those environments.
Still, there is much to appreciate in Sittenfeld’s first collection of short fiction. Finishing You Think It, I’ll Say It makes me want to go back and read Prep and the rest of her catalog for Sittenfeld’s particular sense of humor, witty social commentary, and empathetic portrayals of flawed human beings.
I just read this collection of short stories too! I really enjoyed them, although I agree with you that many of the stories could have been strengthened by “a sense of place.” I felt that “Gender Studies” and “The Prairie Wife” were particularly strong stories with witty plot twists. I, too, am now interested in reading more of Curtis Sittenfeld’s work. Great review, Elizabeth!
Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts on the book, Melissa! I’d definitely recommend An American Wife and, personally, I’d like to read her first book Prep. When I saw her read she mentioned she was working on a novel about Hillary Clinton, which also sounds fascinating. I agree with you that “The Prairie Wife” was one of the strongest stories in the book. I loved all of its themes–social media, sexuality, marriage, conflicted feelings toward people from the past, etc.
I also loved Eligible, which I read earlier this year–a take on Pride and Prejudice. What I appreciate about her effort in these short stories is to capture the mundane through dialogue and casual encounters, though I have to say, I’m not completely sold on whether we always want to read about casual encounters. I’d like a little more dry humor, some heroines with darker honesty. Perhaps that’s the midwest in her, I don’t know. But I’m not done the collection, so we’ll have to see!