Book Report: First Loves and Other Sorrows

I picked up First Love and Other Sorrows second-hand after spotting it in a holiday post over on Lottie & Doof. I'm usually loathe to take book recommendations, but somehow I knew this was one to trust. Was it ever.

Brodkey's writing is excessively spare, which I'm always drawn to. But what hooked me the most is how well he writes women. I usually look to Irish writers for this (William Trevor in particular, but also Colm Tóibín). It was a surprise to find women laid bare here, in Brodkey's spartan prose.

I think often of the movie Closer. To be honest, I'm not sure I like it, but I think of it often and am intrigued by it. Its characters articulate exactly what they feel when they feel it. Every swaying emotion is told as it's felt. And there's an unflinchingness to it, which also makes it feel wholly artificial to watch; that's simply not how people talk to each other, even our inner dialogue is seldom that blunt.

Brodkey's stories tell of the complexity of love, the bluntness and even primitiveness of subjective thoughts and feelings, our wild vacillations in self-esteem and esteem for those we love. But his delivery; so disciplined, never florid, in contrast to the tumultuous feelings he's telling, called to mind that movie. And I sometimes found myself wishing his characters could muster the same directness.

I don't understand at all how this book is out of print. Excepting the last two stories, which I thought the volume would have been better without, this book left me winded. I'm astonished that I didn't cross paths with it sooner, but I do believe in a certain magical synchronicity of timing with books at certain times of your life.

Every time I return to reading short stories after a spell with novels or non-fiction, I rediscover my complete love of short fiction. These compact stories are like perfectly in-focus photographs. There's no blurry depth of field, every detail is given clarity and meaningfulness, the scene is exposed just as it is and you notice details that are easily overlooked and disregarded in everyday life.

Photo of Joseph Brodkey by Eileen Travell
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