Ahhh, love. We all want it. We all become better for it. We have all (probably) suffered for it. Our ideas of love are complex, interchangeable, and wildly worth pursuing across a lifetime. They change as our understanding of ourselves allows us to acknowledge better what love can and might feel like for us.
The Invention of Love by Sara Schaff eloquently details this rollercoaster of a journey across fourteen short stories. Deftly touching across a wide variety of themes centred on love, Schaff calls our attention to the unexpected ways love can show up in our lives. This was a superb collection for me. I thoroughly enjoyed every single story; not one of them felt like an afterthought addition to pad out the book (as can so often feel like the case in some short story collections). The ways Schaff chooses to highlight love are highly nuanced and rarely visited.
There is a strong trajectory that carries us through the book, taking us from young love, through to maternal love, and life-long passion with a few surprises in between. Beginning with the opening story “Affective Memory,” a woman reflects on when she was a young graduate exiting a relationship that never came to fruition. Her would-be boyfriend calls off the barely budding romance in favour of another girl. In the story, our narrator has dreamt about the boy later in life and is attempting to remember his name. It’s a beautifully evocative (and incredibly short!) story about the ways people come and go. The versions of ourselves that get left behind because of them, often without awareness for the change they have created:
“I felt alone, so alone, and yet the future felt newly open to me, and I took pleasure in that discovery.”
A recurring theme that emerged for me was the love between female friends, and how this love so often carries us through the challenges of life in subtle and profound ways. In “Something Else,” a group of friends who’ve known each other since their college days explore the ways they remain friends. The challenges of growing up and losing the naive sheen of youth as we attempt to pay the bills and pursue a purpose, while some of our closest friends seem to have no end of success, is covered in a very un-antagonistic way. The story highlights how small actions can keep drawing us back to friendships we might otherwise question our commitment to. In “Noreen O’Malley at the Sunset Pool,” a new teenage mother is meeting up with her friends for the first time since giving birth and must navigate this new part of her identity both personally and in how they now view her. The story is a sad nod to how lives can spin-off down unplanned trajectories that might take you away from one version of love, in favour of another.
I loved that there is so much strength to be found in Schaff’s female characters. Men are given very minimal limelight, and when they are involved, Schaff has a knack for highlighting their inadequacies in understanding and appreciating the women around them. This isn’t done in a hard-hitting ultra-feminist way (although that would have been fine too!). Instead, I found the ways they were depicted to be quietly revealing, the focus is always on the woman and how she copes rather than the man and his actions. This is particularly evident in “West Lake,” with an opening line that hooks you immediately:
“When I was nine months pregnant with Lili, I took the train to Hangzhou to punish my husband.”
Living in China, where her husband works, our narrator is about to give birth when she discovers her husband is having an affair. Instead of confronting him, she takes herself away to a hotel in Hangzhou, a place that holds familiarity for her, and prepares to give birth alone. She has not told her husband where she is. The story is a melancholic nod to the resignation such a decision can weigh on a person’s mind. Adultery is a horrendous experience to go through, but Schaff’s character never reads like a victim. Instead, she feels very empowered, consciously making decisions and plans for the betterment of her future, with full awareness for the revenge she is also creating in the process:
“The life that came after this was hard to imagine, but it didn’t matter if I could imagine it or not; the next moment would come, and the one after it. I would call my husband eventually, and he would be angry.
Let him be angry. It was the least he could do.”
Schaff takes a much sharper aim at the dominance of men in two short stories towards the end of the book. “The End of the Workshop” is an uncomfortable look at the too-often over-puffed ego of white men, the ways they dismiss those (women) who don’t see things their way, and the failure of a patriarchal society to hold these men to greater accountability for their ways. “The Man Running the Hiring Committee” similarly throws a punch at the ways men serve to support each other, especially above and beyond the women in their lives:
“In the end, you’re willing to make the call: Candidate A all the way. Even if it means losing your wife. Because that’s the kind of sacrifice you have to make sometimes. To do what’s right for your fellow man.”
One of my favourite stories in the collection is “My Husband’s Second Wife.” Even the title of this story brings a million stories to mind before you’ve started reading it. The relationship between exes and current wives (or indeed partners) is renown for drama, trauma, and chaos, but Schaff upturns that narrative completely. Instead, what we are offered is a beautiful nod to maturity. Although Schaff still covers the inevitable jealousy and competitiveness that exists between characters in this position, the focus is on the growth of the first wife. Years after the experience of her husband cheating on her with the woman who becomes his second wife, the narrator reaches an epiphany that allows her to put to rest the unresolvedness that has hung over this relationship for too long:
“The idea that Delia and I had shared anything significant was a pretty and convenient lie. And I’d used it to keep myself from hating her.”
This was a collection I couldn’t wait to return to, as soon as I finished one story, I was eager for the next. Schaff has a sublime mastery of prose, and the language she uses has the perfect touch of brevity, while still drumming up strong evocative emotions for the experiences her characters face. Every single character felt real for me, and I immediately felt connected to their story. I was left wanting more and have already ordered her other collection of short stories.
The Invention of Love
160 pages. 2020