The thrilling woes of that thing called 'love story'
'My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead' compiles 27 stories by respected writers for one-stop reading on amour.
Don't be put off by the strange title, which Jeffrey Eugenides plucked from the Latin poet Catullus's verse bemoaning having to share his lover's attention with her pet sparrow. It's the only off note in this otherwise irresistible anthology of 27 love stories sure to make hearts flutter well beyond Valentine's Day. My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead was edited by Eugenides at Dave Eggers's behest, to benefit the Chicago chapter of 826 National, his writing programs for teens, a cause as worthy as amour.Skip to next paragraph
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Eugenides's point is that love stories – as opposed to love itself – thrive on obstructions: sparrows, dead or alive. As he explains in his introduction, they "depend on disappointment" and "nearly without exception, give love a bad name." What he doesn't mention is that reading love stories thrillingly combines the pleasures of prurience and schadenfreude.
Unlike Zadie Smith, who commissioned new stories by hip young writers for "The Book of Other People," her anthology for Eggers's literacy project, Eugenides sought suggestions rather than submissions from contemporary authors.
Although some of Eugenides's featured writers – Harold Brodkey, Mary Robison, Vladimir Nabokov, William Trevor – also appear in Roger Angell's 1997 anthology of love stories from The New Yorker, "Nothing But You," there is, remarkably, no duplication of stories. Eugenides's collection tucks many old favorites together between covers for the first time.
What a treat to reread William Faulkner's Gothic tale of perverse attachment, "A Rose for Emily." Or Bernard Malamud's beguilingly cagey give-and-take between a young rabbi and his matchmaker in "The Magic Barrel." Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with a Little Dog," one of the best stories ever written about how even illicit, initially cavalier, love gets under your skin, is another welcome classic. My only complaint is that the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, responsible for the acclaimed new translation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace," replaces the familiar pampered "Lapdog" of the title with the more literal but less resonant "Little Dog."