Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Love, In Theory : Review

Find it now at Amazon or - for an e-copy -
at UGAPress.  Your local bookseller can order
it for you too!

Do all books, all stories have a "best audience", that group of readers for whom the writer's insights and singular style hit right in their literary sweet spot?  I think so. 

So I'll say this:  I thought that Love, In Theory by E.J. Levy would hit right in that sweet spot for me.  Sadly, it didn't, but I don't necessarily fault the writer or myself; we simply weren't the perfect reader-writer fit. 

Why?  Well, these stories - in the main - feature a somewhat detached stance on the part of their various narrators, plus quotable humor of the sort one might scribble down when a colleague snaps out a tasty bon mot that cracks up the whole lunch table, or when a friend posts one of those breezily ironic,visual-plus-verbal "postcards" on Facebook.  Both of those features work just fine for me.  But after a few such stories, one bled into the next due to the repetition of these qualities. 

But isn't the recurrence of an author's stylistic quirks an inevitable downside to a short story collection?  Often, the answer is yes.  Which is why I don't want to disparage Levy's writing.  In my experience with short fiction collections, the danger of sameness is always present.  Only true virtuosos, true masters of the form, can produce a collection with varied textures, structures, perspectives, characters, and insights.  We can hardly expect that from anyone's first collection.

An aspect of these stories that may be a draw for "perfect fit" readers is their content focus.  For the most part the fictions feature:
* Love as the theme, filtered through theories from a variety of disciplines (hence the title), resulting in that distanced stance I noted above.  Many who are in the throes of an imperfect passion or a love recently lost will find solace here, and perhaps a means to reflect upon their lives in comparison to the characters featured.
* Moderately to extremely well-educated protagonists addressing the highest, most passionate emotions in a rather cerebral manner, "emotion recollected in tranquility".  (This added to the moderate sameness of tone, despite differing protagonists.)
* Quiet finishes.  Reflection marked the final sentences of many stories, with one surprising and notable exception: My favorite story was the sole offering that surprised me with its final paragraphs and left me pondering for days.
* Many wry-smile-worthy insights about stories and writing and art.  Loved these: it's where reader and writer synced up.

I suspect that if I had encountered a single E.J. Levy short story in The New Yorker or some such, it may have made a stronger, more lasting impact on me.  And one singular story packed such a wallop that I'd like to use it in my classes some day.  I'll be writing Ms. Levy to beg her permission to explore "Small Bright Thing" with students and friends.

Looking for another view or for more details on Ms. Levy and her writing?  Hop on over to Love, In Theory's tour at TLC.

My gratitude to Ms. Levy, her publishers at The University of Georgia Press, and all the fine folks at TLC Book Tours for allowing me to sample the early work of a writer who promises to keep producing worthwhile short fiction for many years to come.


p.s. My action is to take what I've learned through reading this collection straight into my classroom.  We'll pay particular attention to writers' choices of narrative distance and how they interact with other short story elements to create an intended (or unintended!) effect in the reader.  Looking forward to it!


EJLevy said...

Thanks so much for reviewing, LOVE, IN THEORY! I'd be delighted to have "Small Bright Thing" taught--I know that other stories in the collection are read in college classes (eg, the final story, "Theory of Dramatic Action") but you're the very first to propose SBT. Best wishes and thanks for reading LIT! EJL

Christine said...

I'm really drawn to the cover, for some reason. I think your honesty is great.

Laurie said...

Ms. Levy -
Thank you for visiting my humble blog, and for your generous permission. I can see why "Theory of Dramatic Action" has attracted professors and their students, and I did appreciate your collection. I'll be keeping my eye out for your next book!
Christine -
I wish I could have found a more crisp version of the cover; it is, indeed, intriguing. And I post on the premise that if I don't offer my honest responses to the texts I review, I'll lose the trust of both readers and writers. Thanks for your appreciation for that position!

trish said...

Your description of her stories remind me of Simon Van Booy's stories. I admit that I wasn't too impressed by his stories at first, and I didn't realize what an impact one of his stories had had on me until I started relaying the story to a friend and couldn't finish without crying. His stories are very quiet, as well.

Thanks for being on the tour! Very interesting review, even if the book wasn't a favorite. :)

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