Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is a collection of eleven short stories looking at our perception of not only others but ourselves as well, and just how often we get it wrong.
In ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, a married woman flirts with a man she meets at parties by playing You think it, I’ll say it, putting into words the bitchy things she guesses he’s thinking about their fellow guests. But she is in for a shock when, in time, she finds out what was really in his mind.
‘The Nominee’ sees Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, confessing her surprising true feelings about a woman journalist she has sparred with over the years. In ‘Gender Studies’, a visiting academic sleeps with her taxi driver, for what turns out to be all the wrong reasons.
Although it has a different title to the overall collection, The World Has Many Butterflies is the title story and encapsulates what is happening in the stories Curtis Sittenfeld tells us here.
The main characters are playing a game, which we all play to a greater or lesser extent as we go through life, by trying to condense another human being down to a bitesize personality trait or psychological term, and have that define them or sum them up. It’s about how we try to read and evaluate, or judge and accept/dismiss (depending on how harmless or mean-spirited you think the game is) the people we meet throughout our lives, and how easily we’re able to fool ourselves when it comes to our own behaviour.
The stories follow a character’s rarely-voiced and privately-held internal thoughts and we often see what has changed since those misconceptions were first formed in their present-day, older selves, as in A Regular Couple and The Prairie Wife where the tables have turned. There are exceptions to this, such as in Off the Record, where an interview with a rising star goes disastrously but helps the journalist realise something more significant, and in the final story Do-Over, where two former school friends meet up for dinner and get the chance to air their thoughts on what happened back in the day.
As ever, Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing is sharp and full of wry, sometimes wistful observations, such as:
I had no idea, of course, that of all the feelings of my youth that would pass, it was this one of an abundance of time so great as to be routinely unfillable, that would vanish with the least ceremony.
How true. And there’s also this telling observation by the same character in Vox Clamantis in Deserto:
I’m relieved to have aged out of that visceral sense that my primary obligation is to be pretty… Did I used to think being pretty was my primary obligation because I was in some way delusional? Or was it that I’d absorbed the messages I was meant to absorb with the same diligence with which I studied?
I enjoyed the stories in this collection but particularly admired The Nominee for its perfect build up to that thought-provoking final question; Gender Studies for how opportunity arises and is taken advantage of because of an oversight; The World Has Many Butterflies for the title game in all its waspish glory; and, surprisingly because it starts off at a prenatal yoga class, Bad Latch for how we can be too quick to dismiss someone, and also never really know what is going on in their life at any one time.
One of my personal favourites within the collection is Plausible Deniability where two people connect over a shared love of classical music yet each still sees the relationship between them so very differently. And I felt for the journalist in the final story, Off the Record, which shows the other side to the publicity machine and dovetails nicely with its opening story, The Nominee.
You Think It, I’ll Say It is far kinder to its participants than the two characters were when playing the same game in The World Has Many Butterflies. Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing is both intelligent and insightful as she gently skewers contemporary social mores with her knowing observations and wry humour.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Black Swan and Doubleday, imprints of Transworld, part of the Penguin Random House Group of Companies. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where purchases help support your local independent bookshop.
‘Do-Over’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Sunday Time EFG Short Story Award. Curtis Sittenfeld is the Sunday Times bestselling author of Eligible and American Wife. For more information on her and her books, visit her Author Website or follow her on Twitter.