I received this book from The Next Best Book Club in exchange for an honest review.
“That morning he had waited at the station for the train to start running again, his head low, body shaking, and he understood why people killed, why people stopped feeling, why people stopped believing in God. He heard the first train of the day burrowing through the tunnel to his hub, and he thought of throwing himself on the tracks. But then he thought of his mother, his sister, Alvin, Elizabeth, and knew that giving love to the world was more important than the pain it gave you” (Michalski, 131, “The Goodbye Party”).
I’m always ready to read a short story collection, so when Jen Michalski’s The Company of Strangers landed in my inbox with promises of queer Gen-Xers trying to find happiness, I was excited to read more. When I started though I was shocked by how moving these stories were, how sad. The sun-drenched beach and silhouetted surfers really give the wrong idea of what this anthology is about. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but it’s something we almost can’t help doing, and the cover of The Company of Strangers really simplifies the breadth of the stories inside. I felt for so many of these characters, my heart ached for them and what they were going through and I just wanted them to find happiness. The theme of grief weaves it’s way through many of these stories, realistically and heartbreakingly so. I felt seen by these characters grief, especially in the absolutely devastating “The Goodbye Party.”
My one criticism is some formatting issues. I was given a PDF copy, so there were some strange things like the repetition of ¾ throughout that I’m sure will be fixed in it’s printed form.
The Company of Strangers is a truly marvellous collection of short stories. Michalski knows her characters and how to make her reader’s feel. I can’t wait to read more of her work!
You can read my thoughts on each of the stories below:
After Life – 4 stars: You (the girlfriend), remember your time with an ex and all the things you missed. Written in second person, which I surprisingly didn’t mind this time. This story was excellently written, full of love and grief and questioning as the world moves on after loss.
The Loneliest Creature on Earth – 3 stars: A parent thanks you for listening to their child recite facts to you and goes on to explain his strange medical condition. Another second person. An interesting look at chronic illness and the grief that goes along with that, though I didn’t fully understand the ending.
The Long Haul – 5 stars: Raymond visits his Uncle Tony after years of estrangement. A great character study with these two character, I absolutely loved this story and felt so deeply for each of the characters.
The Meteor – 3 stars: A meteor lands in a couples front yard, burning and destroying those who come close but the woman doesn’t want to leave it. This was an interesting story, I really liked the writing but didn’t understand what it meant.
Your Second Left Fielder – 4 stars: You (Alex) remembers the second left fielder from your co-ed baseball team as a kid and reflect on where you are in life now. Another second person story, and I really think this would have worked better in first. I had trouble figuring out who was who, the “you” just made me struggle. But the story was good, and it has a lot of heart which made it one of my favourites.
Great White – 4 stars: Charles brings his friend and co-parent Linney and his six-year-old daughter Rachel to Nantucket and reflects on his life. The dynamic between the characters was very interesting in this story, I was hooked on their relationship and think this would make an excellent longer novel. It did end a bit abruptly though.
Eat A Peach – 4 stars: Superstitious Lynn is going on a blind date with Rachel and comes up with many reasons for why this relationship won’t work before it’s even begun.
I’m Such A Slut and I Don’t Give A Fuck – 3 stars: You (a now old singer) are in Spokane and ready to sing a new set list while reflecting on the past, recognizing that you will be remembered for something from your youth. Another second person, and one that just didn’t get me like the others have. I understood the point of it, but it lacked to the previous stories.
The Company of Strangers – 3.5 stars: You (Casey) have been caught by your brother with his girlfriend and are now being kicked out of his house. The titular story in the collection, I think this would have worked better in first person. Great themes on identity and finding yourself, but the second person point of view really took me out of the story.
The Bowling Story – 3 stars: It’s a bowling story. I don’t know exactly what this one was about, possibly how memory can make it’s way into writing and create something new, finding and adding meaning into something made-up. The theme of grief and disappointment was well-done though.
The Piano – 2 stars: X’s marriage has just ended and on impulse they buy a piano without knowing how to play it. I really didn’t get this story. The writing was good, but this is the weak story.
The Goodbye Party – 5 stars: A recent widower brings his young son to a Goodbye Party at a local adoption centre. Oof this one hurt. Such a raw and honest look at grief, I loved this, but wow did it make me sad!
The Club of the Missing – 3 stars: A very, very short (two-page) story about missing people and other things that get lost. This was fine, to the point.
Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken – 3 stars: On New Year’s Eve Jonas reconnects with a friends young sister and looks back on his life and the decisions he’s made. This one was fine, some great themes of loss but not as powerful as some of the previous stories. I did like how much Jonas cared for his daughter.
Scheherazade – 3 stars: Dan helps out his colleague Regina, thinking of how his “yeses” through life have taken him. Not my favourite, but I finally know why there are surfers on the cover of this book!
Publication: January 10th 2023
Publisher: Braddock Avenue Books
Pages: 194 pages (PDF)
Source: Owned (Thanks TNBBC!)
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories, LGTBQ*
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤
The stories in Jen Michalski’s new collection reveal an America in which ideas of genuine community ring false and the spiritual backbone of family life is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. Characters, many of them queer Gen-Xers of a certain age, find themselves looking—often desperately—for a way to understand the lives they’ve lived and a way to move forward with the possibility of future happiness. In “Long Haul,” a gay man visits his estranged uncle to lay to rest the unresolved guilt they both feel over the childhood disappearance of his sister. In “Great White” a gay man who was the sperm donor to a lesbian friend’s pregnancy is confronted with the possibility of genuine parenthood when the friend’s partner dies and she is laid low by grief. And, in the title story, while visiting her brother in New Mexico, a young woman affirms her sexuality by having an affair with her brother’s girlfriend, the fallout leading her to regain her footing only when she befriends an elderly gay couple vacationing in the area. In stories that relentlessly demonstrate the tensions of the 21st century, Michalski’s The Company of Strangers provides a sometimes comical, sometimes touching portrait of what is perhaps our most pressing question: How do we make a life?