BOOKS: ‘Delicate Edible Birds’

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DELICATE EDIBLE BIRDS
By Lauren Groff
Voice/Hyperion, $23.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Anybody who has spent much time on a lake knows how lakes compel the eye. Their beauty is the least of it. It’s their chameleon transformations: From water to ice to mist; from blue to grey to brown and black. It’s their secrecy, too. Who knows all that lies beneath or what may emerge? Lauren Groff explored their ambiguities in her acclaimed first novel “The Monsters of Templeton,” set in a fictitious version of her hometown, Cooperstown, N.Y. Like Cooperstown, Templeton has its baseball hall of fame and its opera house, but the home-runners and opera divas float somewhere along the periphery; it’s the year-round residents of Templeton who command the center stage. They are back again in “Lucky Chow Fun,” the first tale in Ms. Groff’s short-story collection “Delicate Edible Birds,” in which she again exposes the secrets people keep, and the energies that power human relationships.

Lucky Chow Fun is Templeton’s only Chinese restaurant. For Lollie, the overweight star of the high-school swim team, it’s interestingly exotic. Eating there is a social highlight: a break from worrying about getting into college and hoping her divorced mother and her ADHD sister are going to be OK. This is all typical small-town coming-of-age stuff. But in Lauren Groff’s world, the life of Templeton is like the lake it stands on. Usually, anxieties are no more than ripples breaking on the shore, but sometimes the hidden murk releases what it has been hoarding, letting it float up and flaunt itself in the daylight. Just so, a debacle at the Lucky Chow Fun propels the quiet Chinese girls who work there into the foreground. To Lollie, they had been mere figures in a landscape; now everyone realizes how much a part they have been of the secret life of Templeton. It’s shocking. The innocent get hurt. But smart young women like Lollie learn something, too.

Talented women, often young, appear in many of the other eight stories in this volume. They can be sharply determined to get their way like Aliette, the polio victim who decides to become the lover of a champion swimmer, and, indeed, to become a champion swimmer herself. Loosely based on swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey, she’s the driving force in “L. DeBard and Aliette,” and a heroine of the battle for women’s rights. But as the 1918 flu epidemic spreads in the background of her story, it’s clear that victory will come at a cost.

There’s always a price to be paid in Ms. Groff’s stories. Aliette has wealth on her side, and it does a lot. But the girl in “The Majorette” seems as if she will be trapped in the small-town misery she grew up in until she discovers her talent as a baton twirler. Like Aliette, she goes through physical torment, but she survives. Indeed, they both do better than mere survival — better than women of earlier times in Aliette’s case; better than her married-at-16, chain-smoking mother in the majorette’s. It doesn’t always happen that way. Tough women can take things too far, as Celie does in “Watershed,” another Templeton story in which the lake plays a watery trickster role.

Sometimes circumstances and other people push the women in these stories into terror. This is the case with Bern in “Delicate Edible Birds.” A talented and compassionate war correspondent, she escapes from Paris with four male colleagues as Hitler’s armies march in. She’s a tough cookie, a fighter to get the jobs usually reserved for men, a favorite with her male companions, yet a victim of her gender in the end.

The analogue for Bern are the ortolans she had been served by an older lover: “the tiniest bird carcasses imaginable, browned and glistening with butter.” The way to eat them is to cover one’s face with a large napkin so that their bones can be sucked and crunched without fellow diners witnessing the horrid spectacle. Bern, then only 16 years old, is horrified: ” ‘A bunting,’ whispered her lover, bathing her ear in his wine-warmed breath. Caught, blinded, and fattened with millet, then drowned in Armagnac, and roasted whole. ‘A delicacy,’ he said.”

The story of Bern and the ortolans is set within the World War II story. Like one of those landscapes seen from an open window in a painting of a Renaissance interior, it suggests what will happen when Bern and her companions find themselves imprisoned in a barn by a French Fascist. In Ms. Groff’s stories, such interruptions in the main narrative slow the action, tune up the tension as events move to their destined, though sometimes surprising, end. Similarly, “Watershed” has a diver who twice stops the action with a tale of rescuing — or not — a diver buddy. As the rain pours and the lake swells, his reminders of the people that may never have emerged from its depths are eerie and alarming. In “Lucky Chow Fun,” Lollie’s tale is similarly interrupted by commentary on the huge number of folk tales that focus on parents abandoning their children — as Lollie’s father did, when he stranded them in Harrod’s Food Halls. Children at the mercy of their parents is a recurring theme in these stories, as it was in Ms. Groff’s “The Monsters of Templeton.”

Like many writers who emerge with MFAs from university writing programs, Lauren Groff has well-trained skills. She can write a shapely sentence; reach for a startlingly apt metaphor, and do a way better-than-average job holding the reins of the narrative and driving it where she wills. What distinguishes her from most of her fellow MFAs who succeed in the difficult task of getting a first novel published, is her sense of life as a braid of emotions, ambitions, constraints and surprises that ties everyone in place — though without preventing some of them untwisting the ties that bind. To put it simply she has a vision of life. She expresses this best at the end of “Watershed”: “There is no ending, no neatness to this story. There never really is where water is concerned. It is wild, febrile, kind, ambiguous; it is dark and carries the mud, and it is clear and the cleanest thing. Too much of it kills us, and not enough kills us, and it is what makes us, mostly. Water is the cleverest substance, wily beyond the stretch of our mortal imaginations. And no matter where it is pent, no matter if it is air or liquid or solid, it will someday, inevitably, find its way out.” Paragraphs like this make her fiction worth thinking about — which is not the case with many of those MFAs who have certified writing skills but not a lot to say.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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