The characters in Emma Straub’s debut short story collection, Other People We Married, are stuck. They can’t decide whether to stay together or break up, remain where they are or run away to somewhere new—and sometimes they’re struggling with all of these dilemmas at once. They have crushes on their students at the colleges where they teach. They have crushes on their friends. They wish their husbands were better, or paid more attention to them. They have problems with their sisters, and they have difficulties relating to their grown children. Their parents are weird and they might want to run away from home, down “a different highway, one that went somewhere.” They want things to be “perfect, just like in a magazine: glossy and impossible.”
But this is, of course, not how things really work, and these characters—mostly women, but featuring the occasional gay male, and mostly in relationships teetering on the edge of failure—are all just beginning to discover that interminably sad truth: that this life they find themselves living “only looked like something new, but really it was the same as all the others.”
The collection’s recurring protagonist, Franny Gold, who shows up in three of the stories, doesn’t quite know what she wants. She has an intimate episode in “Pearls” with her college roommate, Jackie, a burgeoning lesbian who has to come to terms with the fact that her best friend doesn’t like her that way. Then we catch up with Franny a few years later in “Other People We Married,” on vacation with her husband and toddler, and with her gay best friend in tow ostensibly to provide the reader a semi-neutral lens through which to observe Franny’s marriage. By now, we realize that everything may not be kosher in that regard, but Franny’s not ready to give up on it quite yet. And in her last appearance, in “Mohawk,” Franny and her husband eat at a diner, having just sent their eight-year-old son off to camp, and realize that their relationship problems may now be irreparable; they don’t know each other anymore, it seems.
These domestic and interpersonal crises form the crux of the conflicts weaving their way through Other People We Married. The outside world seems so much less of a threat to these characters than the people surrounding them: neglectful lovers, judgmental family members, mysterious strangers. They just want reassurance that they’ve made the right choices—and if they haven’t, they wouldn’t mind being pointed in the right direction.
It will come as no surprise that one of Straub’s literary mentors is Lorrie Moore, the wonderfully gifted fiction writer whose lonely, depressed women populate countless short story anthologies and have become representative of a certain style and subject matter being tackled by a certain brand of American female writer whose mostly white, vaguely middle-class characters are perennially displeased with the mediocrity of their existence and are wondering always what might have been, or what might actually be if certain difficult decisions are made. The protagonist of “Marjorie and the Birds,” a widow who has joined a bird watching group in Central Park just to give herself something to do, finds that “the park sounded so beautiful to her, like it and she had been asleep together and were only now waking up, were only now beginning to understand what was possible.” And the short story is a perfect form for this type of exploration: we get only a glimpse of these people’s lives, not quite enough to get annoyed by the banality of their problems. Just enough, actually, to feel like they might be our problems too.
Emma Straub’s Other People We Married is available for purchase on the official site of the book’s publisher, FiveChapters Books.