Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 224 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Seven women, seven stories. That’s the best way of describing the latest book from Rebecca Miller. Although this isn’t actually Miller’s latest book. Personal Velocity — a collection of short stories — was first published by Doubleday in 2002; Canongate republished it last week.
I didn’t expect to like it very much, based on two reasons: short stories tend to leave me cold; and Miller’s runaway success, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, didn’t really do it for me when I read it last year. But I was prepared to be convinced otherwise, and so I took it to work and over the course of a week or so read a chapter each free lunchtime. (Interestingly, each chapter is perfectly digestible within an hour, which has me wondering whether I’ve been missing a trick when it comes to short stories: perhaps I should be reading them one at a time rather than back to back, as I usually do, which means they all run into each other and nothing seems to stick.)
The blurb of my edition claims that the stories here are a “brilliant portrait of the multi-faceted lives we all lead” but I didn’t particularly recognise myself — or any woman I know — within the pages. What I found here were women trapped, whether by circumstances, marriage or insecurity. Most are troubled, even though it might not be immediately obvious. For example, my favourite story, the opener dubbed Greta, about an editor of rather lame cookbooks who scores the biggest coup of her career, has a rather sad tale about a disappointing, one-sided marriage at its heart. Greta finds the courage to leave her husband in the end, but it doesn’t feel like a victory to be celebrated.
I found myself very much enjoying many of stories in this collection, particularly the tale of Delia, who escapes her abusive husband, and the inter-connected tales of rich and beautiful Julianne and her dowdy housekeeper Bryna. But, like any collection, not everything appeals and there were a couple of stories that had me going, so what?
For that reason, I found Personal Velocity a little hit and miss, but if you liked The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and enjoy short stories, it will probably appeal.