Further study may confirm or deny this, but I suspect that short story collections do not make for good book club discussions. Or maybe my nonwork brunch book club is just bad at keeping on topic. We completely forgot to brainstorm a name for ourselves, and we spent about twenty (nonconsecutive) minutes talking about the book, and the remainder of the time chattering about shoes.
You Know When the Men Are Gone is a loosely connected group of short stories about the army: life on an army base, or life in a war zone, or how to handle a homecoming. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of stuff about this lately, but I think that’s just because my roommate watches Army Wives and Coming Home back to back every Sunday evening. An army wife herself, Fallon depicts life on an army base with incredible vividness, the social norms, the constant worry, the small resentments and disrupted schedules.
Good endings junkie that I am, I tend to find short stories unsatisfying. The authors don’t have enough time to build up the emotional resonance I want, and when they do, they run the danger of coming off melodramatic. It is my opinion that short stories work best one at a time, in total isolation from other short stories. “The Lottery” will bowl you over when you read it by itself, but maybe not if you’ve just read fourteen other short stories by Shirley Jackson.
You Know When the Men Are Gone had this problem too. There were several stories in the collection that ended similarly to each other, with a sort of “my man, I will stand by him; my life, it isn’t so bad” attitude on the part of the protagonist. I didn’t dislike any individual one of those endings, and in fact actively liked several of them, but the collective effect was diminishing. I think I’d have really loved the end of “Inside the Break” if I’d read it by itself. Such are the vagaries of short story reading.
This all sounds rather negative, when in fact this was one of the very few short story collections I’ve ever (a) managed to get all the way through and (b) wanted to get all the way through. I was reading it for a book club, but I’d have finished reading it anyway, once I started. It wasn’t like Let the Great World Spin, which I might well have abandoned if I hadn’t known I needed to be able to discuss it in book club.
Thanks to the lovely Lydia for sending me my copy!