Delicate Edible Birds

If I were to recommend the best short story writers few have heard of, Lauren Groff would be at the top of my list. The tales in Delicate, Edible Birds (2009) are rich in language and imagery; the characters are so real they could walk off the page. Like Carol Shields, she depicts average women in unique situations. Take for example, "The Wife of the Dictator." In an unnamed South American country, a dictator takes a rather plain American widow as his wife. She is envied and spied upon by the upper class women--those whose husbands are government officials. After the birth of her daughter, a disappointment to the dictator, she shows signs of being beaten. Her daughter grows into a plain and fearful child.

The dictator's wife is wearing new colors..., and on her head she now wears hats with chin-length veils. When we search out her eyes, we believe we see bruises around them, and from that moment we don't search them anymore. Later we wonder if they are not bruises, if she is simply exhausted from all of the sleep she has been missing. When they are together in public, the dictator rarely turns his eyes from his wife. We almost never hear her subdued voice anymore. ( p. 152)

As revolution brews in the country, the modern women who narrate this story quake with fear. The American wife, now "ugly with fatigue (p. 156)" speaks to them over tea and admits that in her dreams, she has visions of her husband's atrocities. But the spotlight is not really on the wife, but on the callous women watching her. Yet they, too, are hostages to the violence around them. Ultimately, Groff grants them self-awareness if not culpability.

In "L. Debard and Aliette," Groff depicts unrequited love, as she does in "Sir Fleeting." In the first story, we have a former Olympic swimmer who helps a Polio victim regain the use of her legs and go on to be a Gold Medalist herself. The character, Aliette, is loosely based on the real life of Ethelda Bleibtrey. The story has an unusual and brutal twist.

In "Sir Fleeting," a woman looks back on her youth and her life-long passion for a handsome but shallow man. There is marked contrast between the wholesome eighteen year old she once was and the lonely, elderly woman she is now. As she glances at her reflection in an elevator door, she remarks: Whatever it was I'd had in that picture had seeped away over the years, a rubber tire with a long, slow leak. (p. 194)"

Every tale in this collection harbors a surprise. Each ending, some shocking, some merely revelatory, prove Lauren Groff a master storyteller with a unique understanding of the human heart. She depicts people in their full humanity, capable of deep love or great cruelty. Above all, she is a writer whose every sentence contains a wealth of meaning and beautiful prose.

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