This collection features stories about women facing doom in a male-dominated world. Unfortunately, the characters aren't compelling enough to make us care.
Since this collection is made up entirely of stories about women, it is not much of a stretch to infer that Lauren Groff figures her women as “delicate, edible birds”—a sad statement, indeed, but one that applies nearly universally to her female protagonists. They all, even when resisting, suffer terrible fates at the hands of a male-dominated world. The stories leap across time and place, but the sadness of the women they feature remains the same: there are young Chinese girls forced into sexual slavery in a small American town, a Latin American dictator’s wife complicit by association in his acts of atrocity, and a suicidal suburban housewife who becomes a performance artist and conceives of increasingly self-destructive pieces. The title story—the last, longest, and best in the collection—is about an American war correspondent in France during World War II. An incredibly strong and independent woman, especially for her time, Bernice goes by “Bern,” is sexually liberated, and, in the line of duty, can “kick brain matter off [her] shoes and go unhurriedly on.” She even has those familiar traits meant to signal a powerful, almost masculine woman: a foul mouth and a love of scotch. And yet even Bern succumbs to the pressures of her male peers when she is called on to sleep with a Nazi sympathizer in order to save them all. Perhaps it is the desensitization that comes from such a continuous sense of impending doom that prevents Groff’s stories from being heartrending, for though the blows keep coming for her women, the collection is an unsettlingly quick and superficial read, populated by characters that Groff fails to make us care about.