I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing so much that I’d be content to fill this review with her funny, insightful quotes about marriage, motherhood, and the perils of the smartphone-meets-social-media age. I love it so much that I follow her on Facebook so that, gratifyingly, I saw her geeking out after interviewing fellow St. Louis native Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" fame. I love it so much that I broke up with a boyfriend because he “loathed” her debut novel, "Prep" – OK, I didn’t really, but I should have known the moment he slammed down the book (after one chapter!), asking disdainfully of the teenaged narrator, “You don’t relate to her, do you?” Why, yes, I did (I do!) relate to Sittenfeld’s protagonists, as they stumble through the unspoken expectations for young women and the nearly invisible, yet intractable markers of class.
In You Think It, I’ll Say It, Sittenfeld’s teenagers have grown into women navigating an openly hostile political landscape where, as one character says, “our country decided to elect an unhinged narcissist over an intelligent, experienced, qualified woman.” In that story, “Do-Over,” Sylvia invites her former classmate Clay to dinner while she’s in town on business. At their elite school, they tied in an election for senior prefect – “the fancy term used for student body president” – but after a run-off, their dean suggested Clay be prefect and Sylvia his assistant, a solution they accepted “qualmlessly,” at least in Clay’s memory. At dinner, he brings it up, acknowledging Sylvia was likely the real winner and apologizing – Trump’s election led to his revelation about the sexism of his appointment. (That his father was a trustee is a factor he doesn’t recognize.) Clay’s expectation that Sylvia be appreciative of his apology and gracious about what it cost her unhinges her, derailing their evening. It’s a remarkable story, capturing the rage of some professional women in the wake of the election and the relative complacency of their male counterparts. Reading it is like watching a train wreck except, somewhere along the way, realizing you’re on it.
Sittenfeld is at her best where gender meets class, trafficking in the minor humiliations of fictional women who often self-sabotage, or at least overthink. Yet her stories are not polemical. Clay, for all his entitlement, is sympathetic, and Sylvia is as awkward and hostile as she is vulnerable; her pain is palpable, but so is her neediness. Which is all by way of saying that Sittenfeld’s characters are grown-ups, neither saints nor sinners. Instead, she shows how privilege can lead to “likability,” whereas facing diffuse unverifiable biases can lead to a kind of petty insecurity.
In exploring the way a segment of middle-class women live now, Sittenfeld reveals problems that surface despite or, as often, because of their success. In “A Regular Couple,” a lawyer reflects on her new husband, “if he were the one earning more money, as in a traditional couple, there were certain ways I’d probably defer to him, accommodations I’d make that he seemed either unconcerned with or unaware of: He did significantly less of the cooking, rarely sorted the mail, and never made our bed. He would do any of these things if I asked, but he didn’t do them, as if they didn’t need doing, as long as I didn’t ask.”
Then there are the stay-at-home moms. In “The Prairie Wife,” one falls down the vortex of cyber-stalking a former friend-turned-celebrity; every night she intends to “fold laundry or call her mother, while actually [fooling] around on her phone.” Another finds excitement playing a “game,” the titular “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” created by a fellow dad who encourages scathing observations of their friends. The gap between what we think and say – or between what we imagine others think and what they actually think – can be paper-thin, or wide as a gulf.
These insights may seem dark, but Sittenfeld’s writing is also terribly funny (her collection was just optioned for a TV series by Kristin Wiig, who is becoming somewhat of a purveyor of great contemporary women’s fiction, with her appearance in the 2014 film "Hateship Loveship," which was adapted from an Alice Munro short story.)
In one such moment, a newly pregnant journalist is asked by her editor:
“Is this like an NYC single independent woman taking control of her fertility or an Indiana white trash baby mama [screw-up]:)
Good question, Nina had emailed back.”
Later, when the babysitter texts incessantly that Nina’s six-month-old is crying, interrupting a potentially career-making interview, “There is a part of Nina – say, 15 percent of her – that thinks For Christ’s sake, what am I paying you for?... Meanwhile the other 85 percent of Nina cannot bear listening to Kelsey Adams prattle while her daughter cries in the care of a seemingly incompetent stranger.”
It’s comic, but it’s also commentary on the excruciating act of balancing a career with children in contemporary America.
If a few characters feel slightly too close to "Prep"'s narrator, that’s in part because social media has put us all back in the mindset of high school, where everyone else has glossier hair, cuter kids, and more glamorous vacations. It’s also because Sittenfeld specializes in awkwardness, a quality that may diminish after high school but never leaves us entirely.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) and a regular contributor.