Single, Carefree, Mellow

By Katherine Heiny

(Knopf Doubleday, $22.95, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

When she was just 25, Katherine Heiny accomplished something most writers only dream of: she sent a short story to The New Yorker and got an immediate acceptance. And then she tried to write a novel and that went nowhere for years, although she did publish stories in such respected literary journals as Ploughshares, Narrative, Glimmer Train, and others. And she wrote Young Adult novels under the pen name Katherine Applegate. She married a former M16 agent – that’s British for spy, a la James Bond. They and their children now live near Washington, D.C., “Single, Carefree, Mellow” is her debut book.

Here is what she told about her husband:

“. . .For most of our married life he was undercover, and I couldn’t tell people what he did. We had to be careful about what we said on the phone. He was under death threats some of that time. So I think that because I lived with secrets being part of my life for so long, it’s kind of second nature.”

And secrets are a big part of her book.

What is this book about?

The 11 stories in “Single, Carefree, Mellow”  feature women who often are anything but.  They’re confused, possibly genuinely in love with several men at once, willing to cheat but not proud of it, needy in some ways, strong in others. In short: real people making the kinds of choices and decisions that seem inevitable at the time, but perhaps not quite so in hindsight.  Heiny “gets” these women and presents them to her readers with no apologies. They might be your cousins or roommates or neighbors, or you. They have beloved dogs that die (the title story will wrench the chilliest heart) and relationships that should die but have amazing resiliency. Though the subject matter of these pieces is often pretty disturbing, the telling is often extremely amusing.  One character, Maya, appears in several stories, but all the protagonists have similar traits and experiences in love affairs that break the rules and sometimes hearts. Single, Carefree, Mellow offers an unvarnished look at contemporary relationships, unsettling though understandable just the same.


Why you’ll like it:

Heiny writes with insight and sharp humor and an impressive grasp of how complicated love, or the pursuit thereof, can be. She captures the voice of young (or young-ish) women trying to navigate complicated situations: a mistress having a drink with her lover’s wife; a woman tangled up with  her male roommate; a child’s birthday party from hell with the world’s most depressing clown; the aforementioned loss of a dog. The depth she finds in these well-wrought tales is genuinely impressive.

Here’s what Heiny said about her writing in an interview on the website The Review Review:

“How to Give the Wrong Impression” was the first story I ever published.  I’d been sending stories out but never before to The New Yorker.   Then my friend Jennifer said I was an idiot, that I was supposed to start there, so I did, and they called to accept the story less than 24 hours after I mailed it and they published it with almost no changes and I thought, “Wow, this writing career stuff is really easy.” (It turns out I was somewhat mistaken about that.) . . .

“I don’t know why that story was selected.  Maybe because it’s about unrequited love, which is something almost everyone has experienced.  And I wrote it when I was very young and unrequited love was about the worst thing I could imagine happening to anyone, so maybe that earnestness set it apart from stories with a more cynical tone.  I do know that if I’d known then how hard it was to break into The New Yorker, I would never have tried.  It was an impulsive, uninformed, late-night decision – but maybe that’s the best kind. . . .

“Years and years ago, Evan Hunter told me that unless you get up and start writing in the morning, you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who plans to write something in the very near future.  At the time I thought he was crazy.  Write in the morning?  I didn’t even get up in the morning.  I got up about noon and generally started writing at about midnight, except that it wasn’t generally, it was rarely, because usually at midnight I was out drinking with my friends.  But eventually I took his advice and I went from being a writer who wants to write to one who actually does, and there’s no better feeling than that. And none worse, either.”

What others are saying:

“This radiant collection of short stories features a set of flawed yet sympathetic women in a whole mess of compromising positions . . . Many of the women in these beautifully wrought stories are single, but they are anything but carefree or mellow . . . First-time author Katherine Heiny takes great care to make her characters relatable even in their imperfections. She paints sweetly resonant moments that also can be very funny . . . Single, Carefree, Mellow is named for a story in which Maya ponders leaving her boyfriend of five years, then decides there is “such a thing as too much loss.” It’s a poignant moment that sums up this smart exploration of love and betrayal, and that fine line between happiness and pain,” says Bookpage.

“Funny and heartfelt . . . Few characters are single and even fewer are carefree—though most long to be. Instead, they are remorseful about their disloyalties, torn between spouses and secret lovers, and guilt-ridden over the betrayals they commit in the name of love . . . Maya, who appears in several more stories in various stages of life and love, is one of many captivating characters expertly imagined by Heiny . . . An exceptionally humorous collection by a talented new writer. “ says Library Journal’s starred review.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “ …something like Cheever mixed with Ephron: white, middle-class suburban discontent simmering below the surface, but treated with a light touch that keeps the focus squarely on the woman’s point of view…on the whole Heiny is very good at portraying the circumscribed landscapes, both literal and emotional, in which her characters live. She also gives credence to what is still a conundrum for many women: What role can I play in a world in which I am neither fully “carefree” and “mellow” when single, nor entirely “giving” and “content” when attached? A world in which I am still implicated in conventions of how women should be? “

Kirkus Reviews says in a starred review: “Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories. The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question.  . . “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book . . . we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company. These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un-self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.”

“In the pantheon of very bad ideas, agreeing to meet your lover’s wife for a drink would seem to fall somewhere between sticking a fork in a toaster and walking blindfolded into traffic. And yet Sasha, the twentysomething protagonist of Single, Carefree, Mellow’s opening story, ‘The Dive Bar,’ decides to put on her favorite earrings and do exactly that . . . Refreshingly liberated and free of judgment . . . Single, Carefree, Mellow is a lot like the women who populate it: smart and sexy and a little bit ruthless,” says Entertainment Weekly.

When is it available?

This interesting book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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