Love Like That
Henry Holt & Co. | March 9, 2021
On the cover of Emma Duffy-Comparone’s debut, the short story collection Love Like That, is an impressive layer cake, expressing softness and sweetness—except for the large butcher’s knife stuck into the top of the cake. This image is an exceptionally fitting one: Duffy-Comparone’s stories are indeed as layered as an elaborate cake, and as incisive as a blade.
Throughout the immersive collection, many stories center on a coming-of-age. Duffy-Comparone deftly tackles the genre, which has been done over and over again in literature, but as Duffy-Comparone shows, there are endless possible variations on the theme—and it often does not look the way Salinger and Knowles would have us believe. In Love Like That, coming-of-age happens in reverse, or accidentally, or in spurts. Young children encounter aspects of adulthood, both pleasant and unpleasant, on their journey forward. Too, adult protagonists regress, or else are forced to confront the ugliness of aging, an equally messy inverse of puberty. In “Marvel Sands,” for example, a teenager works at a beach club over the summer; when her older male boss leers at her, it is an unfortunate indoctrination into womanhood. In “Package Deal,” whose title is a clever double entendre, an unnamed protagonist struggles with new relationship dynamics when “the Boyfriend” introduces her to his son, “the Kid.” In “Sure, Fine,” a woman returns to her hometown after the dissolution of her relationship—and takes up with her former boss at the seafood shack she worked at as a teenager.
Again and again, these women characters fail to do what is expected of them, defying expectations at every turn—not in the glamorized, glass-ceiling-shattering way championed by second-wave feminists, but in a realistic, if less cinematographically appealing way. The teenager in “Marvel Sands” is not entirely repelled by her leering boss. The woman in “Package Deal” does not discover some previously untapped reserve of motherly tenderness, instead longing for time alone with her boyfriend. The protagonist of “Sure, Fine” inhabits the apathetic, complacent role so often shunted onto the man in stereotypical representations of heterosexual relationships. In almost every story, women misbehave in ways that are often relatable. The protagonists are our best selves and our worst selves and, frequently, something in between. If Duffy-Comparone’s stories are sometimes cringe-inducing, it is only because of the embarrassment of seeing our own qualities reflected in them.
With Love Like That, Duffy-Comparone joins the ranks of Claire Messud and Ottessa Moshfegh—writers who, despite relentless criticism, placed unlikable female characters at the center of their stories. She also joins the ranks of Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore with her delightful prose, rich with unexpected, yet pitch-perfect descriptions. Despite the sugary treat that adorns its cover, Duffy-Comparone’s book does not sugarcoat its subjects; these women lead lives that are not glamorous or refined, and the complicated elements of being human are on full display here. Things like pubic hair and mucus and colostomy bags are not played for disgust; they are simply present as normal aspects of life.
This refusal to shield the reader from unsavory elements of a story extends beyond the physical; Duffy-Comparone allows the reader to know her protagonists at every level, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I was reminded, while reading, of Tim Kreider’s 2013 New York Times op-ed “I Know What You Think of Me,” in which he writes: “if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Duffy-Comparone has forced her characters to submit to that ordeal, so that readers may appreciate their stories fully. She is an exacting surgeon, and her patients are wide open on the operating table for all to see. If the organs are not beautiful, the surgery certainly is.