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New Yorker Fiction Review #171: "Flower Hunters" by Lauren Groff


Review of a short story from the Nov. 21, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

So...I recently saw Lauren Groff give a talk here in Pittsburgh, about her 2015 novel Fates and Furies. And I can say without doubt it was the most boring author reading/lecture I've ever been subjected to. I left after 15 minutes. Why?

First off, when anyone, anywhere, starts talking and gushing about Shakespeare, my eyes glaze over and I start looking for the nearest exit. But when an author starts talking about what a big influence Shakespeare has been on her work, and starts reading specific passages of Shakespeare plays and comparing them to parts of her own book, it's enough to make me want to puke.

This is what Lauren Groff did for the first 15 minutes of her talk a couple months ago and it angered me at a deep, deep level. I just feel it's incredibly pretentious and boring to claim influence of hallowed writers like Shakespeare and Homer. It would take me pages and pages to explain why. But I'd have much more respect for her if she said she was inspired by reading Archie Comics or the backs of Cheerios boxes.

It's like, if people want to read your stuff and find links between your work and Shakespeare, then bully to you. But don't you dare stand up there on some podium and try to cram Shakespeare down my throat for the five-thousandth time in my life like you're my 12th grade English teacher (no offense, Mr. Fisher) or some giddy PhD candidate who thinks he's re-invented the wheel . You're a story-teller, dammit. A bard (pun intended). Entertain me, clown! If you think it earns you a single fan, you're wrong.

That said, she writes interesting short stories, that much I know. The short story in question, "Flower Hunters," is another piece of fiction about a mix-ed up suburban mom in her early 30s who is questioning her life. I think, if she can get her head out of her wanna-be Ivy Tower, Groff could be like the true bard of my generations particular form of ennui. My generation's unhappy suburban moms do not prance around in aprons, crying on their candy pink stoves and getting drunk on Martinis as they vacuum the floors in despair. Nor are they faced with the overt sexism of the 70s workplace and whatever other issues faced young mothers at that time.

In a way, in Lauren Groff's world, the modern woman has come full circle, as -- in this short story -- the main character laments her failings as a mother and longs to be more like her perfect neighbor Meg, who is, to her, the ideal mother and ideal person. The main character's fascination with and admiration for Meg, we learn, borders on the creepy. In Groff's world, young mothers have escaped the "perfect" households of the 50s only to find themselves on the outside looking back in.

Interesting metaphors at work here, as the main character lives in constant fear or a sink hole opening up below her, since she lives in Florida (not too hard to decipher this one), and also she finds herself obsessed (along with her neighbor Meg) with an 18th century explorer and his writing; both, to me, signify a feeling of dissatisfaction with her current existence.

After lambasting Lauren Groff for being so bold as to claim influence by Shakespeare, I feel as though I should give proper respect for a couple lines in this story I really liked:

"The dead need nothing from us; the living take and take."

"It is erotic, she thinks; not the same as sexual. Erotic is suckling her newborns, that animal smell and feel of warmth and tenderness. Laying her head on her friend's [Meg's] shoulder and smelling the soap on her skin. Letting the sun slide over her face without worrying about cancer or the ice caps melting."

I've got to admit, Lauren Groff writes really, realy interesting fiction. I might even go back and re-read this story. I just wish she would let the words on the page do the talking and leave the Shakespeare sh*t to the literature professors.


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