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New Yorker Fiction Review #159: "Gender Studies" by Curtis Sittenfeld

From the August 29, 2016 issue...

Great story. Curtis Sittenfeld manages to accomplish a lot in a very short amount of space, and in a tale that takes place over the course of about 18 hours. There is a complex character with a lot of baggage relating to a recently dissolved relationship, who finds herself in a "situation" with a man she's just met, only to stop short of actual coitus because she feels he has tricked her, and only to regret having stopped it later.

Title "Gender Studies" comes from the fact that the main character, Nell, is a Gender Studies professor. The man she meets, her cab driver, is a Trump supporter, but despite that, she warms to him ever so slightly, and somewhat in spite of herself, enough to almost sleep with him.

If nothing else, the story serves as a cultural snapshot of a very specific period in time, late summer of 2015, in which a Trump candidacy was still the butt of jokes (not funny anymore!) and of the kind of "clash" ensues when a grass-fed beef eating, liberal professor encounters and has to deal with a man from the flyover states with whom she would otherwise have nothing in common.

Memorable to me about this story is Nell's looking back at her now broken relationship with Henry, the man who dumped after 11 years for one of his much-younger student, and cringing at how insufferably hipster they were at one point; a lament it seems you can only have in your mid- to late-30s. For that reason alone, I think the story is especially poignant for me and probably for others of my age.

I will also remember Nell's looking back at her drunken, interrupted tryst with the cab driver, and how she felt she had been to harsh on him, a reminiscence which also causes her to think back to a kindness she regretted never performing in high school, toward a classmate whose father had died of cancer. This is a "zone" I appreciate in fiction, and particularly in short stories, where it seems more potent for the limited amount of space in which it happens. It is the feeling of looking back and connecting life's events and maybe drawing some meaning, maybe not, but just acknowledging that life is complicated and that we don't always make the moves we should have made, and living with the regret of that.

Pretty powerful sentiment to be found in the pages of a 3,000 word story.


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