Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Curtis Sittenfeld's collection of short stories deals with a subject that most of her novels also delve into: the outward and inward struggles of women, mostly middle-aged, to reconcile their youthful hopes, dreams, and ambitions, as well as their insecurities, with the lives they have built for themselves. Sittenfeld's characters, both in this collection of stories and in her novel American Wife, face the reality of careers that are less fulfilling or glamorous than they had hoped; resentment toward other, more successful women; self-hatred; a sense of alienation and loneliness born from disappointing or cold marriages; anxiety over how others perceive them; shame over mistakes they have made; and, just as often, regret over chances or opportunities they did not take.

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In "Gender Studies," a university professor of women's studies has a one-night stand with an airport shuttle driver, while in "Prairie Wife," a social-media obsessed woman cyber-stalks a social-media celebrity with whom she went to summer camp, whose life and online persona she both ridicules and feels jealous of. In many of these stories, particularly "Prairie Wife" and "A Regular Couple," the female protagonists reconnect with people they knew when they were younger and find that those people have changed in ways that are unexpected and sometimes disturbing to their own sense of self.

Sometimes, as is the case in a story about a pre-natal yoga class, a young mother finds herself scrutinized and scrutinizing a seemingly perfect young mother whose poise and grace she resents and envies, almost to the point of hatred. Yet in this story, "Bad Latch," and in the others, the female protagonists often start by aiming their anger and frustration outward at other women whom they perceive as threatening, vapid, frivolous, or inauthentic, only to realize that those women are actually not the caricatures that they appear at first glance. As it turns out, much of the anger and resentment that these protagonists feel is a product of their own disappointment with how their lives have turned out, or at least a sense that what they have achieved, personally and professionally, has not brought the level of satisfaction that they had once hoped or expected it would.

In other words, the themes of this collection of short stories are universal. These stories examine how people (in this case mostly upper-middle-class, middle-aged women from the Midwest) view their lives as lacking. Many of these women try to assuage their sense of desperation and invisibility by having affairs, by seeking out connections with people they used to know, or by giving in to unhealthy obsessions that momentarily distract them from the lives they are living, in which they feel trapped.

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Characters