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'Delicate' Stories In A Best-Friend-Forever Voice

Mar 9, 2009

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Laurel Maury

Author Lauren Groff has a certain winsome, best-friend-forever voice, wise and irreverent, filled with brash, adolescent bravura. Her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a tale of magical realism with a prehistoric lake monster as a supporting character, burst onto the literary scene last year to become a New York Times best-seller. However wacky the world could get, Groff could go one notch wackier and keep the story vital.

Her second book, the short-story collection Delicate Edible Birds, is rougher — most of the pieces were written when she was a student. Still, it's excellent, smart-alecky chick-lit that offers something more intense that will appeal to men as well: stories about how seemingly powerless people can shift their societies.

In "Lucky Chow Fun," a group of Chinese prostitutes change life in a small New England town. "That year, we natives stopped looking one another in the eye," says Lollie, the overweight high-school breast-stroke champion who narrates (read the story's opening). In "The Wife of the Dictator," wives become complicit in their husbands' evil deeds through their own careful, studied ignorance. And Groff loves to celebrate unconventional relationships, such as between a gay bachelor and an 11-year-old avian enthusiast; or a penniless Olympic swimmer and a polio victim.

The language is filled with wry, exact observations. A doltish husband with wandering hands is "a Labrador retriever, earnest and stupid and simple." An aging beauty looks on winter in Central Park and notes, "even those floozies, the cherry trees, have turned spinsterish in the cold."

Although these stories use their traipsing lyricism to investigate the sorts of losses that hit women hard — of youth, love, a spouse — they wear their gravitas as lightly as a summer dress. Delicate Edible Birds has a powerful girlishness that reminds me of when I was 12 and believed I could conquer the world.

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Delicate Edible Birds
By Lauren Groff
Hardcover, 306 pages
Hyperion
List price: $23.95

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