Saturday, 16 December 2017

Review: 'Fresh Complaint' by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides has always been one of those authors I have been meaning to read. The Virgin Suicides, in large part due to Sofia Coppola's film, became one of those books I felt I would like, if only I actually sat down for it. Middlesex was a book I feel I should read, which would actually have something to teach me, if only I actually sat down for it. And so I circled around Eugenides' books for years but never taking the first step. So when I saw Fresh Complaint I figured it was about time I grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and sat down for it. Thanks to Harper Collins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/10/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins; Fourth Estate
‘What was it about complaining that felt so good? You and your fellow sufferer emerging from a thorough session as if from a spa bath, refreshed and tingling?’ 
The first-ever collection of short stories from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. 
We meet Kendall, a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; and Mitchell, a lovelorn liberal arts graduate on a search for enlightenment; and Prakrti, a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her family leads to a drastic decision that upends the life of a middle-aged academic. 
Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot have shown him to be an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, self-discovery and family love. These stories, from one of our greatest authors, explore equally rich and intriguing territory. 
Narratively compelling and beautifully written, Fresh Complaint shows all of Eugenides’s trademark humour, compassion and complex understanding of what it is to be human.
Fresh Complaint is a collection of beautiful short stories on that grandest of topics: the human condition. What is this human condition I speak of? It's "the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality". It is no wonder almost every book finds itself questioning, describing, analysing and despairing over the human condition, since it provides so much material. In Fresh Complaint, then, Eugenides looks at all these events, characteristics and situations that create the human existence. Friendship, love, heartbreak, disappointment, anger, betrayal, it all features in the stories written by Eugenides. The stories sharply, yet also tenderly, analyse how we live, what decisions we make, how sometimes we can't help ourselves, how realisations come too late.

In Fresh Complaint, Eugenides brings together short stories written over the last twenty years. It's a nice touch to see which year each of his stories were written, as it for example explains the anger at the Bush administration in one of the stories. However, since the stories were written over such a long time, there is no single unifying theme to the collection, no clear thread that bind them all together. Occasionally links pop up between the stories, as if Eugenides almost unwittingly returned to a character or place and reused them. This lack of clear and obvious unity, however, allows Eugenides to highlight something else, namely how deeply human all his characters are, no matter their differences. Whether it's 'Baster's narrator, who bitterly watches a former love in her 40s chase after a pregnancy, 'Find the Bad Guy's husband who refuses to believe how his marriage fell apart or the title story's young woman desperately trying to escape her family's traditions, each of Eugenides' stories give us characters struggling for life, struggling through life. The stories are both sad and inspiring, beautiful and tragic. It's a perfect blend to sum up humanity.

It's always a little bit daunting, finally reading an author after years of anticipating and reading praise. But with Eugenides I found my hopes topped and fears quelled. Each story shines with a sympathy and humour that betrays a love for humanity but also an awareness for its flaws. Most of the stories will capture you straight away, as Eugenides sinks his claws into you and refuses to let you go till the last word. Dead-tired, I still tried to keep reading until my hand dropped my Kindle on my head as a clear sign that it was time to sleep. Not all the stories hit their mark, occasionally I found myself wondering what exactly Eugenides was trying to say, and yet the stories still have their own charm. The stories draw you into their own world and for the span of their pages you're deeply connected to and concerned about their characters. Eugenides manages to make his characters almost immediately recognisable, as the reader you get to know them so easily that you feel as if you've known them all along. And you care about them, as if they were your friends and neighbours. Fresh Complaint pretty much made me fall in love with Eugenides' writing and now I will finally just have to sit down for it and read his other books.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

Fresh Complaint is a beautiful collection of human stories, of ups and downs, of difficulties and ridiculous situations, both intensely recognisable and strangely odd at the same time. Eugenides crafts his characters and stories carefully and there is something here for everyone. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Short Stories and Literary Fiction.

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