Title: Women in Bed: Nine Stories
Author: Jessica Keener. She is also the author of the novel Night Swim.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Readers: Lawyer Rochelle, nonprofit director Kimberly, at-home parents Marina, Dana and Megan V.
Summary: This collection of nine stories thematically addresses variations of love – love of self, family, and sexual relationships – from loneliness and isolation, desperation and rejection – to need and passion, forgiveness and, finally, to love found.
Our Take: We like Keener’s style, even if we don’t always like the open endings of her stories.
In Women in Bed, a collection of short stories, the author, Jessica Keener, explores women at critical points in their lives. Facing uncertainty in love and relationships, the women struggle to find their bearings, to connect, to heal, and to find their way forward. The slim volume is a quick read, with clear language, and, in some parts, lovely descriptive phrasing.
The book includes nine different stories. “Shoreline” explored the end of a marriage, offering me the most connection to Keener’s prose. Its sadness was wrapped up in the protagonist’s need to be free. “Heart”—about two lovers reuniting in Paris—captured the challenge of connecting despite distance. I also appreciated “Recovery,” the story of a woman’s experience receiving a bone marrow transplant.
On the other hand, a few of the stories did not resonate with me (such as “Bird of Grief”) and the book felt “light,” almost too easy of a read. Additionally, a challenge of the book is the use of the first person in each story; it’s hard, at times, to differentiate the narrators from one another.
Women In Bed is a book I can imagine being assigned to read in a modern lit class in college. The stories read like short plays, leaving gaps for you to fill in yourself, and endings that cause you to wonder about the narrator’s life, decisions, and future. That being said, that I could imagine it being assigned in a literature class made the book feel a bit like an obligatory read for school instead of a book I would pick up to read of my own volition.
I’m not sure why (possibly the title), but I expected this book to be similar in style and content to Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, or Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. So maybe that Women in Bed tended more toward highfalutin than relate-able was another thing I had to overcome before enjoying the rest of the book. Admittedly, I was also a bit offended by the first story, which was still in the back of my mind as I read the next couple of stories, and could also have impacted my enjoyment of the book. While the stories did get better after that first one, and I enjoyed the various perspectives and experiences explored in the stories, they could have been improved with more detail and length, exploring ideas a bit more. Though, the vague, “thought-provoking” endings, seemed deliberate (reminiscent, again, of lit class).
Read Instead: Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave edited by Ellen Sussman.
The short stories in Jessica Keener’s Women in Bed collection offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of each character, and ourselves. Several of the characters made me wish that this work was turned into a novel. There was one character that spanned several stories, however I wished that some others got this extended treatment as well. Keener’s writing is excellent; whetting my appetite for reading her previous book. Some lines just stopped me in my tracks, such as “I’m glad all is well,” Cynthia said, though something small and dark in her mind had hoped that things might fall apart in her absence.” It takes real talent to weave a slice of life in just a few pages. Still, I yearned to know more. I hope one of these stories crystallizes into a novel someday, particularly “Papier-mache” and “Woman with Birds in her Chest.”
Keener writes well; her prose is descriptive yet succinct and she is able to create dimensional characters despite the confines of short stories. Each woman in the seven stories is in crisis or at a crossroads, and each story gives us a brief glimpse into her life and her psyche. The women are damaged, vulnerable, strong, resilient – one would think that any reader would find at least one with which she could identify. I didn’t, however. I did want to know more about these women – what made them tick, why they made the choices they did. I suppose that the reader has to make those inferences on his or her own with this genre. These are the kinds of stories that have to sit with me for awhile before I decide what I think of them.
While I appreciated the writing, I did not enjoy the ambiguous endings. But after finishing the book, I realized that some of the stories were interconnected, and hence provided some closure. Still, I have read other short stories that were more satisfying than these. Most were depressing, and I couldn’t read more than one in a sitting. I found myself finishing each one, and thinking “That’s it?” An interesting enough, if not terribly enjoyable, read.
Jessica Keener’s writing style is perfect for the short story genre. In Women in Bed, Keener develops her characters swiftly, drawing the reader into their personal struggles with love of self, and/or others. Keener is exceptionally skilled at creating a rich landscape almost instantly in each story.
That being said, I did not care for it at all. I struggled to keep reading through the first chapter. Perhaps I would have had a different view of the book, had there been a different order to the stories. The sour taste I had for the first chapter carried on to the subsequent stories. I found it to be too depressing and hopeless for my liking. It could just be that the short story genre is just not for me. I found myself wanting to see the different scenarios resolved, instead of left open ended. Additionally, it was sometimes difficult to know if one story carried over to the next, because they are all written from the first person perspective.
If you love short stories, this book might be right for you. I, however, had a hard time committing to finish it.