'Delicate' Stories In A Best-Friend-Forever Voice

Cover: Delicate Edible Birds And Other Stories
Delicate Edible Birds
By Lauren Groff
Hardcover, 306 pages
Hyperion
List price: $23.95

Read an excerpt of the story "Lucky Chow Fun" from the collection Delicate Edible Birds.

Lauren Groff i i

Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was a New York Times best-seller. Lucy Schaeffer hide caption

itoggle caption Lucy Schaeffer
Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was a New York Times best-seller.

Lucy Schaeffer

Author Lauren Groff has a certain winsome, best-friend-forever voice, wise and irreverent, filled with brash, adolescent bravura. Her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a tale of magical realism with a prehistoric lake monster as a supporting character, burst onto the literary scene last year to become a New York Times best-seller. However wacky the world could get, Groff could go one notch wackier and keep the story vital.

Her second book, the short-story collection Delicate Edible Birds, is rougher — most of the pieces were written when she was a student. Still, it's excellent, smart-alecky chick-lit that offers something more intense that will appeal to men as well: stories about how seemingly powerless people can shift their societies.

In "Lucky Chow Fun," a group of Chinese prostitutes change life in a small New England town. "That year, we natives stopped looking one another in the eye," says Lollie, the overweight high-school breast-stroke champion who narrates (read the story's opening). In "The Wife of the Dictator," wives become complicit in their husbands' evil deeds through their own careful, studied ignorance. And Groff loves to celebrate unconventional relationships, such as between a gay bachelor and an 11-year-old avian enthusiast; or a penniless Olympic swimmer and a polio victim.

The language is filled with wry, exact observations. A doltish husband with wandering hands is "a Labrador retriever, earnest and stupid and simple." An aging beauty looks on winter in Central Park and notes, "even those floozies, the cherry trees, have turned spinsterish in the cold."

Although these stories use their traipsing lyricism to investigate the sorts of losses that hit women hard — of youth, love, a spouse — they wear their gravitas as lightly as a summer dress. Delicate Edible Birds has a powerful girlishness that reminds me of when I was 12 and believed I could conquer the world.

Excerpt from the short story 'Lucky Chow Fun'

Delicate Edible Birds And Other Stories
By Lauren Groff
Hardcover, 306 pages
Hyperion
List price: $23.95

The following story is from the collection "Delicate Edible Birds."

Every village has its rhythm, and every year Templeton's was the same. Summer meant tourists to the baseball museum, the crawl of traffic down Main Street, even a drunken soprano flinging an aria into the night on her stagger back to the Opera. With fall, the tourists thinned out and the families of Phillies Phanatics ceded the town to retired couples with binoculars, there to watch the hills run riot with color.

Come winter, Templeton hunkered into itself. We natives were so grateful for this quiet — when we could hear the sleigh bells at the Farmers' Museum all the way to the Susquehanna — that we almost didn't mind the shops closing up. In winter we believed in our own virtue, lauded ourselves for being the kind of people to renounce the comforts of city life for a tight community and spectacular beauty. We packed on our winter fat and waited for spring, for the lake to melt, for the cherry blossoms, for the town to burst into its all- American charm, and the rapid crescendo of tourists.

This was our rhythm, at least, until the Lucky Chow Fun girls. That year, the snow didn't melt until mid- May, and the Templeton High School Boys' Swim Team won the State Championships. That year, we natives stopped looking one another in the eye.

I was seventeen that spring and filled with longing, which I tried to sate with the books of myth and folklore that I was devouring by the dozens. I couldn't read enough of the stories, tiny doors that opened only to reveal a place I hadn't known I'd known; stories so old they felt ingrained in my genes. I loved Medea, Isolde, Allerleirauh. I imagined myself as a beautiful Cassandra, wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophesies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them come tragically true in the end. This feeling of mutedness, of injustice, was particularly strong in me, though I had no particular prophesies to tell, no clear- sighted warnings. On the nights I stuffed myself with myths, I dreamed of college, of being pumped full of all the old knowledge until I knew everything there was to know, all the past cultures picked clean like delicious roasted chickens.

All March, I skidded home from school as fast as I could in my ratty Honda Civic to look for my college acceptance letters in the mailbox; all of my friends had gotten in early, but because I was being recruited for swimming, I had to wait for the regular acceptances. All March, there was nothing. By the time my little sister, Petra-Pot, trudged the mile home over the snowdrifts, I would be sitting at the kitchen table, having eaten an entire box of cereal plus a bowl of ice cream, feeling sick.

"Oh, God, Lollie," she'd say, dumping her backpack.

"Nothing?"

"Nope," I'd say. "Nothing."

And she'd sigh and sit across from me. Her days were also hard, as she was too weird for the other fourth graders, too plump, too spastic. She never once had a sleepover or even a best friend. But instead of complaining, Pot would try to cheer me up by mimicking the new birdsongs she'd learned that day. "Drop- it, drop- it, cover- it- up, cover- it- up, pull- it- up, pull- it- up," she'd sing, then say, "Brown Thrasher," her dumpling face suddenly luminous. That year, Pot was on a strange ornithological kick, as if her entire pudgy being were stuffed with feathers. She fell asleep to tapes of tweets and whistles and had a growing collection of taxidermied birds scattered around her bedroom. I had no idea where she had gotten them, but was too moony with my own troubles to ask. I avoided her room as much as possible, because she had one particular gyrfalcon perched on her dresser that seemed malicious, if not downright evil, ready to scratch at your jugular if you were to saunter innocently by.

Those melancholy afternoons, Pot would chirp away until my mother came home from her own bad day at the high school in Van Hornesville, where she taught biology. No — my mother never came in, she blew in like the dust devil of a woman she was, stomping the snow off her boots, sending great clouds of snow from her shoulders. "Oh, God, Lollie, nothing?" she would say, releasing her springy gray hair from her cap.

"Lucky Chow Fun" from Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. Copyright © 2009 Lauren Groff. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.

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Delicate Edible Birds

And Other Stories

by Lauren Groff

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