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New Yorker Fiction Review #162: "How Can I Help?" by Rivka Galchen

Review of "How Can I Help?" from the Sept. 19, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Three Rivka Galchen stories in three years...not bad. I've started to like Galchen's stuff a lot more over the years. It's dark, smart, funny without really trying, and also extremely insightful without really trying. All of those vague compliments apply to the current story, "How Can I Help?" It's a story about birth-order, personality, jealousy, self-acceptance, and what it feels like to be the outsider looking in all your life. Something which some of us understand, and others of us don't.

In the story, a young woman who has her life together looks with restrained dismay and genuine worry at her older, prettier, but much less productive and organized sister. Throughout the story (a 1st person reminiscence over years but spanning just a few weeks in real time), we see the relationship between the two unfold, even follow them through the older sister's pregnancy and delivery of twins (out of wedlock to a man she's not in a relationship with, oh and the older sister also lives with the younger sister). Instead of pushing the younger sister toward some kind of breaking point, she accepts her place in her older sister's life and ultimately asks the question that the title of the story suggests.

You might get the sense this is a "lesson" story, but it's not. Thankfully, Galchen tells the story at enough of a moral remove, that the younger sister's acceptance of her plight seems a very natural extension of the character that has been built up over the past few pages. Galchen almost manages to make it seem like a flaw, in a way, which I think is part of Galchen's charm as a writer: the ability to get inside a complex situation and turn it upside down, then upside down again. The victim becomes the perpetrator, becomes the victim again.


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