I reckon short stories have a bigger job to do than novels – they have to hook you quickly, keep you, and hopefully leave a lasting, favourable impression, all in fewer words than a novel – there’s less time for backstory, less time for character development, and less time for plotting. And so I come to Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands. It just didn’t keep me. At all.
Perhaps I have a Stegner-hangover but this collection of stories about various women and girls, and their relationships, felt ‘unfinished’. A handful of stories seemed to be gathering good pace and then fell flat, while others were wholly unresolved (and by unresolved, I don’t mean they lacked an ‘outcome’ – I don’t expect neat conclusions but I do want to understand a character’s motivations and many of these characters were aimless).
Of the stories, the subtle irony in Head to Toe (about two teenage girls who spend most weekends drinking and having sex but take time out to go to horse camp) was the standout. Equally memorable was the implied fate of the young Russian gymnast in Warm Ups.
The collection includes three linked stories about a British doctorate student living in San Francisco – these were good but I suspect largely because you were allowed to know the main character and could then focus on some of the things happening around her.
Ulman’s writing is solid and details caught my eye – of a bus trip, Ulman says,
“People pile on. The oldest kids head towards the back, touching the top of every seat as they go.”
“Being unexpectedly pregnant is like learning that someone you love has died. You remember, then you forget, then all of a sudden it dawns on you again. The brain separates the enormous shock into many minor shocks and doles them out at five-minute intervals.”
But again, there was nothing to keep me on the page, nothing to make me want to linger.
Lastly, and it may be the Pollyanna in me, but I couldn’t help feel all the women in the stories were sad, depressed or repressed. A fairly disheartening picture of the world when there’s not even the smallest of triumphs (even if that ‘triumph’ is confidently adding a boy’s name to your Favourites on your phone).
2/5 Short-story aficionados are probably getting shouty with me but this one just didn’t do it for me.