Book Review for “Fresh Complaint: Stories” by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Summary: “From the bitingly reproductive antics of ‘Baster’ to the moving tale of a young traveler’s search for enlightenment in ‘Air Mail’, to the title story – the intensely topical account of a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her immigrant Indian family leads her to a drastic decision – this collection presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. As in his bestselling novels, “Fresh Complaint” is the work of one of our greatest observers of the crises of adolescence, sexual identity and the challenges of contemporary life.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary; Other Categories: Short Stories, Collection, single author.
My husband and I both loved Eugenides’ novel “Middlesex” and I believe I have his novel “The Marriage Plot” on my shelves. So, when he saw this collection of short stories, he decided to buy a copy. After reading them himself, he handed it to me and insisted that I read it next, and so I complied. The stories here are:
- Air Mail
- Early music
- Find the Bad Guy
- The Oracular Vulva
- Capricious gardens
- Great experiment
- Fresh Complaint
I should note that these are not new pieces, but rather stories written by Eugenides since about 1988, but this collection was only put together in 2018. Of course, a good short story is a good short story, and no matter when it was written, it should be able to stand the test of time. The question, therefore, is… are these good short stories or not? To be honest, I think I should answer this in two parts – the yes, and the no.
The bad news first:
I’m afraid that, I found these stories fell short on a few different levels. Now, it might be just me, but I didn’t “get” all of these stories. By that I mean I’m unsure what Eugenides was trying to say with most of these tales. Surely there should be some kind of point being made, and it seems to me that in most of these stories, that point eluded me completely. In addition, there were a few stories here that rubbed me the wrong way. For example, there was the one about the guy who picks up a female hitchhiker – obviously in the hopes of getting laid – only to end up with her lesbian friend tagging along, and ruining things. Well, that one felt a bit misogynistic to me, to be frank, and I didn’t care for it. Plus, the ending fell somewhat flat, with no real, satisfactory conclusion. Several other of the stories here had the same problem with their endings. Now, I get that you don’t always have to get everything spelled out for you, but without something at the end that at least makes you think a bit, you get an unfinished feeling from them. That’s not what I want in my short stories, I’m afraid.
Now the good news:
I really like Eugenides style of writing. There’s something very comfortable about it that makes you feel like you’re listening to a friend tell you something. And a very eloquent friend, at that. Furthermore, I found at least one familiar character from his novel Middlesex here, which was a welcome reminder of that very beloved novel. Furthermore, Eugenides certainly shows a wide range of creativity with these stories, where each one looks at some aspect of the human condition (both positive and negative) in some kind of interesting situation. It is obvious to me that Eugenides has a very vivid imagination, and is well adept at developing plots to showcase these ideas. Eugenides is also talented in his character development ability, and he makes each of them vivid and alive for his readers, as well as unique. That’s no small feat with the shorter forms of fiction, to my mind.
All told, I think that I have to be honest in saying that with all the pluses, there are almost as many minuses. That means that for me, I believe that short stories are really not Eugenides forte, and that he’s a far more comfortable and accomplished with the full-length novel form. I have to add that the diversity of these stories – which could have been a good thing – also meant that there wasn’t any real, cohesive theme that ran through these tales. It almost felt like these stories were just thrown together for the sake of publishing something. So, while some of these stories are good, I found others to be lacking, and that made the collection itself feel inconsistent. This is why I think I’ll give this book a rating of 2.5 out of 5 stars (meaning it was just average – not great, but not bad), and only recommend it to the true, die-hard Eugenides fans out there.
“Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.