“Daddy: Stories” by Emma Cline

Genre:  Literary Fiction Short Story Collectiondaddy
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Sept. 1, 2020

Once again, due to an injury I am writing this review via voice to text. Please forgive any errors.

I wish this short story collection had a different title. “Daddy’” makes it sound like you’re about to read erotica. Thankfully, these stories are not. Maybe Cline wanted the reader to be surprised. I certainly was. What captured my interest when agreeing to read and review this book was its description as “literary short stories.” It’s the word “literary” that sold me. Plus, I appreciate short stories.

What you get in these ten stories are edgy slice-of-life tales that explore human nature. Cline portrays moments in her characters’ lives that reveal the dark parts of themselves that they would prefer to keep hidden. She does this well. Dare I say, there are traces of Joyce Carol Oates in this young author. Connecting all the stories is a father or father-like figure, though they are often not the main character.

One story in the collection, “Marion,” was the winner of the 2014 Plimpton Prize. From its first sentence, the writing is vivid. “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” Here, Cline takes the reader inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl who does not understand the sexual desires of her 13-year-old best friend. There is a ”Mean Girls” vibe to it, but the reader will find themselves forgiving the older girl since she appears to be at the mercy of her own unstable parents and the questionable boundaries between herself and her father. The short is good but I found “Arcadia” more chilling.

“Arcadia” is the type of story that sticks with you and you really wish it didn’t. An older brother acts as a parent to his 18-year-old sister. The sister is pregnant. Her boyfriend, the protagonist, moves in with her and her brother. The three live in the house the siblings grew up in. The sister and her boyfriend sleep in her childhood bedroom, still decorated as when she was a child. This is the author’s first hint that something might be off with this brother/sister relationship. What is so creepy about this short is that the boyfriend slowly begins to realize that there are inappropriate sexual intimacies between the siblings. He tells his girlfriend ”this is no place to raise a baby.” The power in this short is how the boyfriend chooses to look the other way because he gets sucked into the unhealthy family’s dynamics.

”Son of Friedman” is a sad tale of a father who is, rightly or not, disappointed in his son. George Friedman, a washed-up movie producer, has dinner with an old friend, who still has a thriving acting career. The actor is also the godfather of Friedman’s adult son. The reason for this get-together is that Friedman’s son is having a screening of a short movie he created, a pure vanity project. During dinner, the actor asks Friedman about his godson. Friedman thinks, ”It never even crossed my mind to invite him to their dinner.” With that line, we know what we are about to read. A father who is utterly embarrassed by his son’s project. I thought the author’s talent shines brightest with how she goes deep into the relationship between father and son without ever spelling it out. The father thinks, ”he was always a nervous child.” He often recalls the many expensive drug addiction centers his kid has been in. He never admits his own drinking problem to himself.

In 2017 Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her perceptions are close to brilliant. With a few more years under her belt, I believe she will get there. Part of what makes this collection so good is that in each story there is some sort of perversity right underneath the surface. You can sniff it but you cannot see it. And what will really scare you is when you recognize some of her characters’ traits in yourself. Well done, Emma Cline.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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