You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories by Maggie Shipstead: short story collection review
General Thoughts: Given that this is a short story collection, I'm going to shift my usual review format and give some overarching thoughts on the collection itself and then give little reviews of each story below. While most short story collections have a uniting theme or location or some kind of other consistent thread, what binds the stories of You Have a Friend in 10A together is simply the fact that they were written by Maggie Shipstead. The acknowledgements note that they were written over a decade, some workshopped during her MFA or fellowship and others that just existed in her orbit until publication. They seem to just be the favorites from her career so far. This creates both a pleasingly eclectic experience and a bit of a disjointed one. You never know what tone, style, subject, or world you'll be hit with next, but I think that's what makes short stories fun as both a reader and a writer. Not having to commit to something for 300 pages, it's easier to be open to things you normally wouldn't read or write. Still, this makes it much more likely that you'll stumble into a story that isn't for you even if there are others you love in the collection. Like any collection, there are stories here I enjoyed more than others. There were a few towards the middle-end that really didn't click with me, but none that I bypassed entirely. Of the 10 in the collection, there were 3 that stood out as favorites and only 1 that I started completely skimming. Overall: 4
"The Cowboy Tango": 5 This is the perfect story to open the collection with. It's one of the strongest when it comes to perfectly blending character, plot, and writing style. It's about a dude ranch in Montana where Shipstead brings the setting to life vividly and establishes that she shines the most when writing about mountain towns. The conflict of the story centers around the ranch owner, the young ranch hand who starts working there when she's 16 and stays through her adulthood, and the ranch owner's nephew. In a creepy turn that will be echoed in a number of the stories, the older ranch owner has a crush on his teenage ranch hand. While he waits to make a move till she's an adult, it's still gross. She rejects him and remains icy. They fall back into their working rhythm until the ranch owner's nephew arrives and wins her over, infuriating his uncle. The story feels full, complete, and well considered.
"Acknowledgements": 5 There's a surprising number of short stories written about MFA programs in the collections I've read recently. This is my favorite take on that world I've read so far. It centers on a truly delusional writer who gets rebuffed by a girl in the program, so he writes a very thinly veiled story about her to present at workshop. This guy is so wildly self-absorbed and oblivious to reality that it makes him a fascinating character to follow. The entire story is framed around him sitting down to write the acknowledgment section for his first book, and it makes for a great character study with a plot that holds up.
"Souterrain": 4 We finally leave the Rocky Mountains and end up in France. We meet a web of people centered around a wealthy Frenchman who has passed away. His house is left to his granddaughter who's grown up in America, and she decides to move to France to escape her life. The house comes with his housekeeper who's run his household for the granddaughter's whole life, and he's even left money for the housekeeper's son. Their messy lives tie into knots that are ultimately tragic as family secrets create deep layers of complication. This was an interesting and engaging story that revealed another angle to Shipstead's writing.
"Angel Lust": 3.5 This is the first story that didn't quite hit all the right notes for me. It's about a Hollywood executive who takes his daughters to clean out his deceased father's rural California home. He's been through a number of young wives and lives his life thoroughly for himself. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't have much connection with his teen daughters from his first marriage. They're painted as vapid, air headed stereotypical LA teenagers. The characters aren't formed with the same impact and depth, and the plot felt ambling and directionless. It wasn't until the end that everything came together to land a finally successful sentiment about family that justifies reading the story.
"La Moretta": 4 This is definitely one of the more experimental ones in the collection, and it's by far the most successful of the ones with a grittier, creepier edge. We follow a couple on their honeymoon in the 1970s. It's an ill-fated match, which becomes increasingly clear as we see them move through Europe on their disaster of a honeymoon. Specific events from this trip twist together to create well drawn character portraits and a haunting air leading up to the final major twist.
"In the Olympic Village": 3 This story had potential, but it just never quite got there for me. An Olympic gymnast and Olympic hurdler who are both far from the shining stars of the game hook up in the Olympic Village and contemplate what their lives will look like when the games are over. It's a rich concept to mine, but there's a certain flatness in the characters similar to the issue I had with "Angel Lust". There are so many big questions and themes as well as interesting images that could come through here, but the story never lands on any of them.
"You Have a Friend in 10A": 3 The titular short story's best contribution to the collection is having a fascinating title to give the entire collection. The story itself falls unfortunately close to weird in a bad way more than a good. Going back to Hollywood, Shipstead writes about an ex-child star who fell into a version of Scientology, got married to a bad man, and lost her kid in the divorce as she escaped the cult (this feels very much pulled from Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes). She's on a plane to see her mom who she has a fraught relationship with. There are a few strange sub-plots and just so much pseudo-Scientology vernacular that it made the story a bit of a slog.
"Lambs": 2 I couldn't tell if it was my fault or the story's, but I was completely unable to get into this story or follow all of its threads. There are so many characters introduced so quickly that they all bled together against the background of an artist's retreat. I started skimming this one, which probably didn't help my utter confusion about who these people were or what was going on. This was the only story that I just deeply wanted to be done with.
"The Great Pacific Guano Company": 4 I thought that I wasn't going to like this one when I started it. Reading about 1800s French colonists on a random island isn't what I usually go for. And while it took a while to warm up, the story did become more interesting as the colonists are told they need to flee the island and the society falls apart and reforms. This is another one of the dark stories that takes a surprise twist at the end as the women on the island finally figure out how to band together. I ultimately liked how she took a particular setting and story structure and put her more modern and interesting twist on it with the themes she ultimately pulled out.
"Backcountry": 4.5 While this story isn't quite as perfect as the Montana story that opened this novel, I'm primed to fall for a story about ski towns and seasonal workers. The one I grew up in is even name-checked here a few times. Shipstead thrives when writing about these environments, and I was so glad to see the book return to that world before its conclusion. The majority of this story was fascinating. A young girl drifts through ski towns as she tries to find herself. She ends up absconding to an isolated Montana cabin with an older man she meets where things start to unravel around her. The final part of the story zooms forward many years and ties in a line that's dashed off early, but thrusting us with no context into seeing this character married and in middle age loses its energy because we don't truly know where she's at or how it's got there. It's a jarring hard-cut forward that could've been much more successful if it were more a part of the original story.
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