Every once in a while, you come across a book that feels like a present. The Thorn and the Blossom was that for me. Published in 2012, this book was on my list for a while, but I always seemed to forget it existed. I remember wanting it when it first came out, then I completely forgot about it. A few weeks ago, I saw it on the bargain priced shelf at Barnes & Noble; it was only $5 and I threw it on top of my purchase pile and that was it. In March, we had a snow day from work, and I read this book in one sitting.
This collection of short stories about love, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, has a weird name. But it’s pretty.
It took me a while to get through this one. I can read a book a week usually but I was nursing this one like a warm beer, and I like warm beer. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it’s just that the good takes a long time to find, and when it comes, you lose it again when the story ends. This may be a symptom of how I read, though–I’m not a huge fan of short story collections. Usually I read them in combination with a novel and switch off when I grow tired of one or the other.
Honestly, the two things I loved best about this compilation were the story by Nabokov and Eugenides’s own introduction. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” is everything a short love story should be and all you’ve come to expect from Nabokov.
Eugenides begins the book with a rumination on his short story choices and on what inspired him to become a writer. As a child, Eugenides learned about the Latin poet Catallus in his English class and read his poetry, meant to sound like birdsong. He describes the experience he had realizing that this poem, written two thousand years ago, had reached his ears as if by fate. It was then that he discovered the power of the written word. Whether or not this story is true, it makes for an effective introduction. Catallus was incidentally the first poet to write about a specific person in the context of love, rather than writing about love broadly and without object, as was the norm.
It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer. (xvii)
While I disagree obviously with the sentiment that it’s better to stay in bed and read stories than fall in love, I do think Eugenides has pinpointed the exact reason many of us read to begin with: to experience euphoria and despair, and safely. We read about love so that we may fall in love.
The collection features some literary giants, and you may even have read some of these famous short stories already. My favorites were “Spring in Fialta” by Nabokov, “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Chekhov, “Mouche” by Guy de Maupaussant, “The Moon in its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino, and “Yours” by Mary Robison. Those are the ones that stand out most in my memory when I scan the table of contents and the ones that affected me most while I was reading.
I think I liked the idea of this book better than the book itself. Some stories were stagnant and fell flat, while others glittered with beauty and rang with truth. Still others were too long or too short, which was jarring and disrupted the pace of the book.
I don’t recommend reading it like you would read a novel, from start to finish. Rather, pick it up at random one day when you’re looking for a quick fix. The stories included are not simple, however. They’re complex and challenging and frightening. Like love.
Eugenides, J. (2008) My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. New York, NY: HarperCollins