Saturday, September 8, 2018

Review: Shelf Life of Happiness, Stories by Virginia Pye

Sometimes a book's cover gets it so right. Like the withering flowers of Margaret Buchanan's stunning cover design, the characters in Virginia Pye's Shelf Life of Happiness (forthcoming October 2018, Press 53) are haunting and beautiful not in spite of, but because of, their broken complexity.

The stories felt very intimate as I read them, exploring intense feelings like secrecy, failure, shame, longing, and regret. In Her Mother's Garden, a woman struggling with her aging parents' decline sells their beloved family home to a trusted friend, only to discover she has been betrayed. A wife planning to leave her husband in Crying in Italian can't help but follow blissful young lovers through the ancient ruins of Rome, leaving her children perilously unattended at a busy tourist site. In White Dog, a fading but fiercely independent artist rejects a stylish and successful young art dealer's attempts to reinvent and resurrect him.

One of the things I loved best was the way the author conveyed a very visceral sense of these emotions. In Redbone, a man contemplating his life choices swims out beyond the safety zone: waves of water and waves of regret well up, increasing and overwhelming him as he becomes ever more helpless in a surging ocean. Best Man was the first, and my favorite of the stories, and the most striking example: Two college friends, Keith and Don are reunited for a trip to Reno for Don's wedding to Caroline. Don is a gay man dying of AIDS, Keith is a bit of a ladies' man, Caroline is a newer but dedicated force in Don's life. The story is compelling and heartbreaking, as Don grows weaker and the three race against time to have a wedding before it is too late. Don and Keith have a complicated past, and with the entrance of Caroline into Don's life,  Keith struggles to make sense of all of it. As I read, I could feel Don's frailty, the feverish heat of his skin juxtaposed against the chills of illness and a Nevada snowstorm, and the practically electric connection between the three in the heightened moment of Don's dying. 

There were a few very small things that didn't work as well, for example, a dad's suddenly severe reaction to his son at the very end of An Awesome Gap felt like just a bit of a leap, undermining a story that had me up until that point; the main character in New Year's Day felt just a little too naive from the start. Overall, however, I loved these stories and with all the images and questions they conjured up. Recommended for fans of short, literary fiction.

My thanks to the publisher and publicist for a complimentary review copy of Shelf Life of Happiness.

Happy reading!


  1. I tend to enjoy Press 53 books and appreciate what they do. Novels sell better, so their dedication to short stories as an art form is admirable.

    1. Small presses really are wonderful that way. My first Press 53, and very much enjoyed it.

  2. This sounds good, a fair amount of variety but with similarly hard-hitting cores. Love the title - of course I thought it was bookish at first, but it's poignant.

    1. It is a poignant title! Very fitting to the stories.


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