Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Dinner Party and Other Stories by Joshua Ferris

I was in the car with my husband listening to NPR when we heard an interview with Joshua Ferris on his new book The Dinner Party and Other Stories. My husband is no fan of short stories but he said to me, "I'd read that book." I smirked because I knew I COULD read it. Being pre-approved by Little, Brown & Co. on NetGalley has its perks!

I downloaded the book and started reading.

These twelve stories are about how good people can make really bad decisions. The stories have humor, ironic twists, and chillingly bad choices. I was mesmerized.

In More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope? a man trashes and rearranges the offices of his coworkers, then turns the lights off. He thinks, "An odd scruple. But it's not the world that needs destroying, just his world."

The Stepchild concerns a man who is brooding over his failed marriage. He shows up at the apartment of a married woman he met once. He tells his sad story, and they talk, and 'fall in love'. At the end of the day, he returns to his ever suffering wife.

In The Dinner Party, a couple argues about friends who are late for dinner. The husband can't endure another meal with them, but his wife insists on keeping contact with one of her oldest friends. Finally, the wife retreats to bed leaving the food to spoil while the husband goes to see if their friends are ok. He arrives to find a party going on. His wife's friend knows their friendship is a sham, but he unable to tell his wife the truth.

In The Valetudinarian, Arty and his wife retire to Florida, then his wife dies leaving him alone in a strange place. He withdraws from life and nurses his unhappiness.When his children call for his birthday, he tries to engage their attention with complaints about his health. Then a prostitute shows up at his door, a birthday gift from a friend.

The Pilot concerns a scriptwriter who can't believe he has been invited to a party hosted by a famous director/actor. He wonders, was it a mistake? Should he go? He's been sober for sixteen months but the party unnerves him and he slips.

In The Fragments, a man's wife works later and later until one night she does not come home at all. He is sure she is having an affair. He broods over dividing their things. As he dismantles their life, his wife returns home.

Life in the Heart of the Dead takes place in Prague. A businessman goes on a historical tour of the city. He realizes his whole life has been 'a tour' without a destination.

In A Night Out, Tom and Sophie are reconciling after being estranged over his affair. When Tom speaks to a woman, Sophie is sure she was his mistress and disappears to follow her. Tom searches the city for his wife, finding he is too broke for subway fare. At a bar, he discovers his credit card has been canceled. Sophie's jealousy spurs her into an extreme act of revenge that could cause harm to herself. Meantime, Tom's real ex-mistress shows up at an inopportune time.

In one of the most disturbing stories, A Fair Price, Jack, asks what are we here for? Do we have some greater purpose in life as men? He has been a disappointment to his father, always making 'a hash' of things. He hires a man to help him move some things and unsuccessfully tries to engage him in human contact. In frustration, Jack vents his anger and is left to consider what a 'good' man does when he has done something wrong.

A fatherless son watches his mother throw out one more man in Ghost Town Choir. The man understands the child longs for a father. "Hell, who couldn't use a daddy?" he thinks, apologizing that he couldn't help. His mother responds by changing things around her instead of herself.

I loved the writing, descriptions like "his mustache moved up and down like a centipede." And lyric passages like this from The Breeze: "The children's voices carried in the blue air. Then the breeze came. It cut through the branches of trees, turning up the silver undersides of the young leaves."

My favorite story was The Breeze. On a perfect day, Sarah imagines a perfect time with her husband. She feels under pressure to do something memorable. She feels her husband is dull and her life is passing by without having really lived. Plans are made and go awry as she imagines possible outcomes.

There is a desperation in Sarah, "thinking her options were either a picnic or death." There is a longing for a fuller, more authentic life. "She wanted to be a different person, a better person, but he was perfectly happy being his limited self." Sarah is wise enough to realize that happiness is something she must find for herself for no person can give it to you.

In the end, she makes the right decision, finally understanding how they can both enjoy this one and perfect day in a beautiful and simple act of invitation.

These are stories I want to read again.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read The Dinner Party at
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/08/11/the-dinner-party-joshua-ferris

The Dinner Party and Other Stories
Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown & Company
$26 hardcover
ISBN: 9780316467973