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New Yorker Fiction Review #152: "Upside-Down Cake" by Paul Theroux

My review of Paul Theroux's "Upside-Down Cake," from the June 27th, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

I really like Paul Theroux but this story was a bit of a let-down.

"Upside-Down Cake" is a pretty boring story about the birthday party of a 90-year old grandmother and a "surprise visitor" who comes late and gets a less-than-enthusiastic reception. Throughout most of the story, we get a lot of the catty, back-biting that goes on between the now middle-aged (or older) children of said 90-year old grandmother, which is pretty stomach-curdling stuff with not a likable character among the lot. Which, I suppose, was the point. But it didn't make for very entertaining material.

What I didn't like about this story was that, up until the final reveal, it had the flavor of one of those too-cute, "my dysfunctional family" stories, in the vein of Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." and the tension was so un-compelling that I actually flipped back to the cover page of the story and see if my eyes had deceived me and this story was by a "David" Theroux or something. I barely recognized Paul Theroux's hand here until the end.

The "reveal" at the end -- very Theroux-ish but a little late and un-earned, IMHO -- saved this story from complete oblivion, as did the following memorable opening line:

"Every visit to an aged parent is in the nature of a farewell."

So it wasn't a complete let-down. Sometimes, even just one great line can save a story.


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