The blurb of ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ describes the unifying themes of Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection of short stories as “how even the cleverest people tend to misread others, and how much we all deceive ourselves”. Specifically, the passing of time tends to distort the memories of the protagonists who are often flawed and naive, yet with just enough self-awareness to recognise these traits in themselves. This allows Sittenfeld’s natural gifts for convincing character portraits and satire (especially where class snobbery is concerned) to shine through in this contemporary collection.
Sittenfeld is best known for her third novel American Wife, which fictionalises the life of Laura Bush and she returns with another portrait of a prominent female figure in US politics in the opening story ‘The Nominee’ (which only appears in the UK edition). Despite remaining unnamed, it is made very clear that the pantsuit-wearing presidential candidate and former First Lady in question is Hillary Clinton. Set in July 2016, it is about her professional relationship with a female journalist she has known for many years and explores her preoccupation with how she has been viewed by the American electorate as a First Lady, Secretary of State and now as a presidential candidate. The possibility of being beaten by Donald Trump appears to be so unlikely that it barely crosses her mind. However, he does crop up in conversation in some of the other stories here including ‘Gender Studies’ in which an academic adamantly tells a cab driver she has a fling with that Trump has no chance of becoming the Republican candidate. Elsewhere, ‘Do-Over’ which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and is about a reunion between two former classmates shortly after Trump’s election who have mixed feelings about their school presidential election.
From exploring the mundanity of motherhood in ‘Bad Latch’ or brushes with celebrity via an interview with a film star in ‘Off the Record’, Sittenfeld astutely examines both the personal and the political with unexpected twists. The title ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ is taken from a game played between two characters, Julie and Graham, in ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ while they observe people at parties – however, one of them reads more into the meaning of this than the other. Similarly, the characters in ‘Plausible Deniability’ have very different interpretations of the emails they send each other and is a rare example of Sittenfeld writing in the voice of a male protagonist.
I’m intrigued by the news that ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ is being adapted for television by Apple, as I can’t think of any other recent collections of short fiction which have been brought to the screen in this way. It is a ringing endorsement of the consistently high quality of these stories and I think those who are both long-time fans of Sittenfeld’s work as well as general readers of literary fiction will enjoy them.