February 2008

Writers dissect the heart’s desire

By Jeffrey Eugenides
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides presents readers with his valentine to the love story in My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. In the introduction, he writes, "When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name."

OK, so maybe love isn't always a bed of roses and a box of chocolates, but what kind of collection would you expect from the author of the acclaimed, offbeat novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex? Here, Eugenides chooses disparate stories from an eclectic group of writers, and the result makes for exceptional reading. Some of the pieces are challenging, like Robert Musil's "Tonka," others hilarious like George Saunders' "Jon." These two stories appearing in a collection together is pretty funny in itself, and it's just this sort of pairing that makes this anthology so remarkable. Eugenides also includes "How to Be an Other Woman," a piece by that master of human emotion, Lorrie Moore. Her first directive: "Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night." Written when she was a mere 24, the story already demonstrates Moore's expert ability to strike that fine balance between pathos and humor.

What, you ask, does a dead bird have to do with love? The unusual title of this collection comes from a 2,000-year-old poem written by the Latin poet Catullus, who, in Eugenides' words, "did more than anyone to create the form we recognize today as the love story." Inspired, at age 15, to become a writer upon reading Catullus' work for the first time, Eugenides remains besotted with it. The titular phrase refers to the death of a pet bird belonging to Catullus' beloved, a passing the poet both mourns and celebrates. Alas, Catullus' love was doomed from the start, for his tweet-heart was already married to someone else.

The title alone is intriguing enough to lure readers in, but My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead is also a book with a cause: All proceeds from its sale benefit the free youth writing programs offered by 826 Chicago. 826 Chicago is part of the network of seven writing centers across the U.S. affiliated with 826 National, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

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