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Thrilling woes of that thing called ‘love story’

Jeffrey Eugenides’s collection of love stories hits the spot

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Eugenides also shows unerring taste when cherry-picking from more recent story collections. Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto” movingly captures the domestic dynamics between a curmudgeonly lawyer and his “sunny, his patient, his deeply good” longtime better half, William. Alice Munro’s heartrending story about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” – the basis of the film “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie – is a nuanced portrait of a marital connection that transcends transgressions.

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Equally well chosen are the unfamiliar revelations. In “Red Rose, White Rose,” Eileen Chang spins a subtle morality tale about a Chinese businessman in simple, unaffected prose. After sleeping with a friend’s flirtatious wife, “It was as if he’d fallen from a great height. An object that falls from high above is many times heavier than its original weight.”

Adultery is a perennial fascination. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta,” an exquisite elegy to a doomed extramarital affair, concerns a woman who, for 15 years, “Again and again ... hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text.”

More ferocious – and funny – is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be An Other Woman.” This second-person tour de force captures the desperation of being pulled into a hopeless romance. “When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet,” she writes. “Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.”

The vulnerability of first love is another object of writers’ affections. It is often filtered through what Nabokov calls “memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”

David Mezmozgis’s “Natasha” presents a fresh voice set among recent Russian immigrants in Toronto’s suburbs. His horny 16-year-old narrator’s dismaying relationship with the prematurely hardened young daughter of his uncle’s Russian mail-order bride provides “connection to a larger darker world.”

Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t,” about a couple who miss their moment, is mesmerizingly beautiful: “But we didn’t, not in the moonlight, or by the phosphorescent lanterns of lightning bugs in your back yard ... because of fate, karma, luck, what does it matter? – we made not doing it a wonder....”

The wonder of “My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead” is that it manages to capture a deep as well as broad range of this funny thing called love, without succumbing to the laundry-list effect that afflicts anthologies that try to be all-encompassing: adultery, check; lesbians, check; May-December romance; check. By focusing on literary merit, Eugenides has produced a treasury worth holding dear.

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