Friday, January 2, 2009

Review - Jenny and the Jaws of Life

Jenny and the Jaws of Life is a collection of short stories by author Jincy Willett, first published in 1987 and recently re-released due, in part, to the championing of the collection by humorist David Sedaris. In his foreward to the book, Sedaris writes, "I am prepared to wear a sandwich board for this book. I can't help myself. It's just too good." But don't be fooled into thinking this is a traditionally funny set of stories - Willett's humor is of a decidedly darker bent, ironic and sometimes uncomfortable. Tackling topics that range from death and child abuse to marital intimacy and rape, Willett's collection could seem overly tragic, but her brilliant writing and unforgettable characters keep the reader from despair. While each story is excellent in its own way, there are a few that stand out from the rest.

"Julie in the Funhouse," the opening story in the collection, introduces the reader to John, who is returning home for his sister's funeral. John was supposed to be a great surgeon but ended up only a druggist. His sister Julie, beautiful and adventurous, was supposed to be a famous artist but ended up never leaving home, raising her family and becoming a real estate agent. John learns of his sister's death on a radio report of the tragic slaying of a husband and wife by their two children. As John returns home, he reflects on the early days of him and his sister and considers what it was that turned his sister into one of "the women whom their young must turn on and devour." In the chilling final scene, as John's niece asks him if he wants to know which of the children pulled the trigger, he wonders if Julie's death was inevitable.

"Melinda Falling" is the tale of a smart, successful lawyer who inexplicable becomes fascinated with Melinda, a short, rather dumpy secretary. He first sees her at a party, where she falls down the stairs. He is enchanted with the way she falls - to him, her clumsiness exhibits a grace he has never witnessed before. To her, her fall down the stairs is just one more in a string of humiliating events. But her clumsiness makes him love her - "For Melinda out of control, obedient to only the natural laws, was incomparably graceful. She fell the way we do in dreams, lazily and in profound silence...Melinda was the only woman I ever loved. I loved her dumpy and earthbound. I loved her floating free." They marry, but Melinda never returns his passion, and breaks his heart when she falls in love with another.

"The Best of Betty," probably the most conventionally funny of the collection, is presented in letters from readers to an increasingly hostile advice columnist. Betty - straight-talking and no-nonsense - doesn't hesitate to tell readers exactly what she thinks. In a series of letters from regular readers, Betty has an apparent nervous breakdown and ends up telling her readers what she truly believes.

"Father of Invention" is the story of a young girl's increasingly wild imagination. "Under the Bed" shows a woman's attempt to hold on to normal life after being brutally beaten and raped; "Resumé" is an arrogant man's attempt to bargain with God. With unforgettable characters and an astute grasp of human emotion, Willett crafts stories that the reader will not soon forget. Because each narrator is so fully realized, it is at times difficult to read the stories back to back - after being so immersed in a specific setting, the reader almost needs to stop and take a breath before plunging into the next scene.

Jenny and the Jaws of Life deserves a place at the table next to the great short story collections of our time. With dark humor and keen insight, Willett has assembled a collection of stories that penetrate the highs and lows of the human condition. This is a book to be read and savored again and again.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Elizabeth Schulenberg, 2008


Teresa said...

I just got this book from the library a couple of weeks ago. I'm hoping to read it before it's due because it looks like something I'd enjoy.

Vodka Mom said...

Thanks for the ideas!

Happy New Year

bermudaonion said...

I've been enjoying Sedaris's humor, so I'll have to try this one.

Jenners said...

This sounds very intersting. I'm going to look for it in the library or on Paperback Swap. Hey -- if David Sedaris likes it, I think I will as I love David Sedaris. You did a good job of making me want to read the stories. They sound very intriguing. I usually avoid short story collections because I find them so unfufilling -- if they are really good, I want them to be a novel. If they are bad, I just wish I'd not bothered. I think it is hard to pull of a good, satisfying short story that has a clear beginning, middle and end that leaves me satisfied. It is a difficult form to write, I think. Thanks for a great review!

Elizabeth said...

It is a great collection - I just feel like I need to emphasize that it is NOT laugh-out-loud funny like Sedaris. It's very, very dark, but the stories individually are something quite special.