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'My Mistress's Sparrow' Gives Love a Bad Name

Feb 13, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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Writer Jeffrey Eugenides, who edited the new anthology, My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, takes a unique look at love through this short story collection.

He points out that love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births, on dysfunctional families and matrimonial boredom — and, in short, they simply give love a bad name.

"I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty," Eugenides says.

Eugenides explains that the title of the collection comes from the Latin poet Catullus, who wrote poems about his desire for his girlfriend Lesbia — and the pet sparrow that keeps getting in the way.

Even when the sparrow dies, Eugenides says, Catullus is still thwarted: Lesbia is too grief-stricken by the death to pay any attention to the poet.

Eugenides says he realized that these poems expressed the "two poles" around which the love stories in the anthology revolve: voyeuristic longing and disenchanted entanglement.

Vulnerability and the heightened awareness that people feel when they're in love are what draw readers to love stories.

"When I think about a lot of my favorite novels — Portrait of a Lady by Henry James or Lolita by Nabokov, they are all love stories ... the force of the desire drives the prose, drives the plot," he says.

The novelist says he considers himself "too old" to be a romantic anymore.

"I was terribly romantic as a youth, and I think I retain a portion of that romanticism.

"I'm a father and a husband, and I find that as life goes on, the kind of youthful romanticism changes into a deeper kind of, familial romanticism that is not really something so often written about in these kinds of stories," he says.

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