The (Other) You: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates

My Rating: 3 stars

Many thanks to Ecco and NetGalley for the ARC. This book is being released on February 9 2021.

The (Other) You is only the second work by Oates that I’ve read. The first was Black Water, which I read way back in high school. I remember that it impressed me but also made me deeply uncomfortable. I had the same experience with this collection of short stories. In these stories, Oates explores themes such as identity, aging, grief, choices, and memory. They are depressing, and there is no relief from it, no break from the darkness. A small ray of light tries to break through in “Hospice/Honeymoon” but is quickly dashed. This type of book certainly isn’t for everyone, and it really isn’t for me. While I like having darkness and tragedy in my books, I typically prefer a happy ending. Despite this, I was still easily able to appreciate Oates’ beautiful writing, and I particularly liked her use of parentheses in many of the stories.

The title story, “The (Other) You,” and the final story, “The Unexpected,” make perfect bookends for this collection. In the first, a woman muses on her choice to remain in her hometown and start a family rather than take a scholarship. She thinks about what she could have been versus what she has. In the second, a woman who left her town and became an author returns for a book signing and is confronted with the life she could have had if she stayed. I loved that Oates chose to begin and end the collection with these complementary stories. But my favorite of the whole collection was “The Blue Guide,” which explores aging and memory as a retired professor and his wife return to an Italian city he went to as a young man and find it changed. These were the two characters in the collection I connected with the most, and I found the story as a whole poignant.

As with many short story collections, there were several that I just didn’t find memorable. There were also a few that didn’t work for me. I had this issue particularly with the three stories set at the Purple Onion, a café that is the site of a suicide bombing. I found all three of these confusingly written; Oates plays with time in them, and it made it hard for me to understand what was going on. I also felt they were trying to do too much. In addition to dealing with the suicide bombing, each story also dealt with the issues of characters unrelated to the bombing. Ultimately, I just felt there wasn’t enough space in a short story for all of this.

Overall, The (Other) You is a strong collection that contains some lovely though uncomfortable short stories. Even though some of them didn’t work for me, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Oates’ writing in all of them.

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