Book Review: Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Press 53, October 2018

Reviewed by Clifford Garstang


Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine; I was provided a review copy in advance of publication by her publicist; Press 53 has published my two story collections and the three anthologies I’ve edited, as well as the literary magazine I used to edit. Having destroyed my credibility with these disclosures, let me try to earn some of it back!

I read and enjoyed Pye’s earlier books, River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix, both historical novels set in China. Because of my own familiarity with China, I was drawn to these stories of conflict between American missionaries and their Chinese counterparts, set against a backdrop of enormous changes taking place in Chinese society.

This book is completely different. Comprising nine stories set in contemporary America (except for the one set in Rome), it will be relatable to a wider audience. The title story, which concludes the book, is exemplary. In it, a young man who got his start in the publishing business with the help of his female friend is now tempted by her apparent advances, despite the fact that they are both happily married to other people. What is happiness, the story asks, and how long can we expect it to last?

This sense of underlying anxiety is also at the heart of “Crying in Italian,” in which a couple visits Rome with their two children. Maybe it’s because of the setting and the mention of the Coliseum, but the story puts me in mind of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” one of the great short stories of American literature. This story, told from the wife’s point of view, is about the appeal of following a different path than the one we’re on.

Two of the stories in the collection involve artists at the end of their careers. In “White Dog,” a painter visits the home of an arrogant gallery owner and there is an inevitable clash of the creative and commercial sides of the art world. In “Redbone,” another painter faces a more existential conflict, that of being understood. “All I ever wanted was to be part of a dialogue,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest emotional wallop of the book is felt in the opening story, “Best Man.” Here, a man has come to Reno to be the best man in his old friend’s wedding. As it develops, though, the groom, who is marrying a woman, is gay and dying of AIDS. From the beginning, the reader is aware that there are unresolved feelings between the two men, and the best man finds himself in an awkward situation.

Although the settings in the stories are varied and the central characters unique, the stories share a contemporary sense of disquiet and longing. They ask themselves what is it going to take to make them happy, and how will they know when they’ve achieved their desire. It’s a wonderful collection by a fine writer.

The book publishes in October but is available for pre-order now.

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