6” x 9”
Though it’s often difficult to sum up story collections, Sara Schaff’s debut Say Something Nice about Me is a finely crafted book about growing up at any age. The first story, “Faces at the Window,” highlights the thorny nature of female rivalry between middle-schoolers, one teased unfairly for being a rich girl and the other, a bully acting out a cruelty rooted in a broken home. After the protagonist’s home burns down, she tries to connect with her bully and discovers that issues of class are more mysterious than either girl can fathom at their age.
As the stories progress, the women get older. In “That Won’t Be Necessary,” the main character is an undergrad and rationalizing one relationship, though she ends up falling into another. In this passage, Lucy decides to lose her virginity to a guy she doesn’t care about to exert control over herself, only to inadvertently give an uncaring man exactly what he wants.
Sleeping with Patrick had seemed reasonable at the time […] Lucy did not love or even trust Patrick, but she didn’t want to be a virgin anymore [. …] She didn’t want to feel embarrassed anymore. This was her body. She should be able to direct it as she pleased.
“Ph.D” is cleverly structured as a dissertation outline with footnotes and a bibliography. The story is written in second-person — the second person a man who spurned this particularly sad doctoral student. With an authorly smirk, Schaff captures the mundane absurdity of a young woman trying to make a man love her who could not.
Remember how just before we started dating, you hooked up with Rebecca, the raven-haired Norwegian-Uruguayan Comp Lit student who dropped out to live with a Microsoft exec? You thought you were destined to marry her because she has the same last name only spelled differently. Also, she looked a little like Carrie Fisher in her Princess Leia years. But she ran away, you mourned, and I got drunk at Zander’s Halloween party. That was the first year, and apparently I didn’t get the sexy memo; I came dressed as the Cowardly Lion. I had spent hours papier mâché-ing the head and painting it. But I took inaccurate measurements and the too-small mask made my face sweat. I had pinned the tail of yarn to my savannah-colored corduroys from the Salvation Army. You tugged on it to get my attention, and when you pulled the mask, I could see my face reflected in your dark eyes: shiny with sweat.
If there is a shortcoming of the collection, it’s that so many of the stories turn on the question of a man’s romantic attention. Even the collection’s title hints at this. Almost all the characters are seeking a man’s compliment. The best stories in the collection expand from this question of what we talk about when we talk about love, as “Faces at the Window” does. In the story “Ports of Call,” for instance, the main character visits her parents with her husband and daughter, and her mother is caring for her father, who’s brain-injured from a car accident. Schaff uses romance in this story as both a plot surprise and a welcome shift from the grimness of aging and mortality.
After we tuck Lily into my old bed and after my mother makes sure my father is asleep and breathing evenly, the three of us gather on the front porch. There is a cool breeze off the lake tonight, and it is interludes like these — deceptively peaceful gatherings — when I feel my father’s loss more than usual.
“Is he having a poor reaction to his meds?” I ask. “Seizures? Did the aid quit?”
My mother shakes her head. “I’m in love,” she says, easing out the words, so there’s no mistaking them. “And I think your father suspects.”
Say Something Nice about Me is an expertly woven collection that relies on quiet resolutions even in the face of the occasional tragedy and a wise and witty authorial distance that gives the characters’ quests a certain level of near-nobility. Though I periodically wished the stories would go bigger and louder, Schaff has a well-tuned eye to the small fractures in our lives caused by our mundane desires.