The (Other) You is an anthology of short stories by the incomparable Joyce Carol Oates. There are fifteen stories in this book and not one disappoints, though a few left me feeling devastated. In some ways, this book is the story of what might have been. Many stories look at those life choices that turn us from one future to another. A few seem to be exploring the idea of the multiverse such as in “Waiting for Kizer” where a man meets someone who has his name and much of his history, differing only in a few ways, while they both wait for their good friend Kizer who they lunch with at the Purple Onion, a vegetarian cafe with an outdoor patio that reappears frequently in several stories.
Oates looks at the male-female relationship several times. In “The Bloody Head” she tells the story of a woman losing herself to a man’s demands. This happens in a far more stark way in “Where Are You?” Other stories show how enduring love can be, even when navigating impatience and familiarity as in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In many ways, this felt incredibly true to life.
Three stories were emotionally shattering examinations of grief, something she has come to know well since her husband’s death. “Hospice/Honeymoon” left me feeling so overwhelmed I put the book away for a few days. Then came “Subaqueous” and “Nightgrief” both also demanding a break after reading them.
I love how she bookends her anthology with “The (Other) You” and “The Unexpected.” Both happen in Yewville (Youville!!!) and seem to reflect each other perfectly. One is the story of the woman who chose marriage and children over her ambition to write and the other the writer returning to her hometown to the unexpected resentment of a woman who might have been a writer but who chose motherhood.
I have always liked Joyce Carol Oates. She writes with clarity and economy, but with such rich interior emotional heft. She can write her way into the minds of people on both sides of highly polarized issues such as the abortion war in “The Book of American Martyrs.” I think The (Other) You is one of her best books because it feels the most personal. And yes, I took note of her warning that memoirist writing is fiction in “The Happy Place” but her writing on grief comes from experience and that is why it is so emotionally devastating.
I received an e-galley of The (Other) You from the publisher through NetGalley.