Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You Are Free, by Denzy Senna

The female protagonists in Denzy Senna's new story collection, You Are Free, are struggling with questions of identity--questions that emerge from their racial backgrounds (nearly all are biracial) as well as their relationships. Many of the characters are adjusting to the transition from financially struggling single New York artist to solidly middle class married mother living in the West.

In the first story, "Admission," Cassie and her husband Duncan attend an interview at an exclusive preschool in LA as research for a play she is writing. But when their son is admitted to the school, Cassie is tempted to enroll him, even though they had already selected a preschool they could afford. Duncan, however, remains scornful of the overpriced "Institute," telling Cassie she sounds like a New Yorker cartoon. When Cassie tells the admissions officer that they have decided not to enroll Cody, the story takes a turn for the creepy, as the admissions officer then becomes something of a stalker, calling Cassie over and over to try to change her mind.

In "The Land of Beulah," Jackie has been dumped by her boyfriend because she is not black enough for him. She adopts a stray dog, which changes her life. She makes new friends at the dog park, stops attending to her own hygiene, and abuses the dog. Things seem to come to a head when she sees the ex-boyfriend with a white woman, but the dog escapes and the story ends with Jackie at the spa.

Another character, Lara, is confronted by a woman who thinks Lara is her birthmother. A "Triptych" of stories place three young women in identical situations--their mothers having just died of breast cancer and their abusive fathers presiding over a family meal. Rachel and her husband Hewitt--both biracial but often mistaken for an interracial couple--find themselves living in an apartment building populated by an oddly large number of interracial couples. Rachel and Hewitt have a baby, as do their neighbors Dave and Helga. Rachel finds Helga and her parenting ideas bizarre and is thus stunned when a number of people mistake her for Helga and when Hewitt starts to show some interest in the neighbor.

My descriptions of the stories don't do them justice--Senna has created three-dimensional characters struggling with who they are on several fronts. In addition, she has done it with insight, a touch of humor (while up with their baby, Rachel and Hewitt comment sarcastically on Nick at Nite's Huxtapalooza), and a soupcon of creepiness.

Favorite passages:
Livy recalled all the evenings she'd spent in her old life, bonding with her other single women friends. It was like some ancient ritual, the way they offered each other their tales of love lives gone wrong, men behaving badly, how they offered up their dissatisfaction and ambivalence like pieces of fruit at the feet of the Buddha.

It was over. She knew, sitting on the slim modern sofa in her Brooklyn walk-up, that it was over, this romance with herself. A love affair was ending. And she felt a new affection for her solitary life, the same affection that sometimes arises for the person you are about to leave.

They talked about milestones and nursing difficulties and those last ten pounds they couldn't lose and peanut allergies and diaper rashes, and yet beneath the pedestrian chatter Livy felt overtaken with love of a religious magnitude for all of them,. She felt the duaghter-self, young and vain, dying, and the mother-self, huge and sad, rising up in its wake, linking her to nothing less than history.

(All of these passages are from the story "The Care of the Self," which, despite the fact that I didn't mention it above, must have been one of my favorites!)

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