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What Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’ Showed Me About Short Stories

stone mattress by margaret atwoodUntil I read Margaret Atwood’s newest short story collection, Stone Mattress, I didn’t think that I was a reader who could love short stories.

(This, despite being a fan of B.J. Novak’s collection, One More Thing. I am a slow learner)

While I adore reading novels built as a collection of interconnected short stories like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon SquadI don’t generally enjoy short story collections. I’ve always thought that was a little weird but also consistent with my preference to get immersed in the worlds that I visit in fiction and television.

Short stories are usually, well, too short for me. I want to know what happens to the characters after the story ends or to head down a slightly different path with a minor character, always staying with the same world.

Stone Mattress opens with three stories that do exactly that, starting with a piece about an aging fantasy writer who receives instructions about how to ride out a snowstorm from her dead husband. The next two follow characters in her past and round out a world of aged Bohemian artists and long-held grudges.

I am a sucker for those types of stories, so it was a perfect way to pull me into this collection. To my delight, a later story, “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” revisits characters from one of my favorite Atwood novels, Cat’s Eye The Robber Bride, to see what they’ve been doing. Again, catnip for me an Atwood fan. These kinds of connections are what I seem to crave in fiction.

But, somewhat to my surprise, I also loved the stories that weren’t explicitly connected to other stories. Despite their relatively short length, Atwood does an amazing job of succinctly, artfully giving each main character a history and enough motivation that it feels like the story will keep going after the final sentence.

In the title story, for example, the main character finds herself in a situation to commit the perfect murder. Along the way, Atwood shows why she has become this way and leaves open possibilities that her story will continue. It’s an ending of a story that feels both conclusive and open. It’s so great. In another story, “The Dead Hand Loves You,” Atwood tells a tale of a cult horror film and the pact the creator made with his college roommates. The ending is, again, final but also delightfully twisty.

It helps, of course, that Atwood is one of my favorite authors and that I will basically throw myself into anything that she’s written. But I was honestly surprised at how much I loved this collection, given my assumption that short story collections just don’t work for me. If you’ve never read Atwood before, Stone Mattress is a perfect volume to give a sense of her style. And if your a fan of Atwood, absolutely go grab this collection.

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  • Shannon @ River City Reading September 10, 2014, 5:58 am

    I totally felt the same way. I think this is the first time I closed a collection and could really see several overall themes, didn’t look back on any stories I struggled through and could pick out a few I would want to re-read several times.

    • Kim September 14, 2014, 8:57 am

      Yes! I liked that I could see threads between the stories, either in characters or ideas or big questions. I don’t always find that in short story collections.

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) September 10, 2014, 7:49 am

    I almost always enjoy short stories when I read them but I rarely seek them out and I’m not sure why. This collection sounds exceptional.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge September 10, 2014, 12:02 pm

    I did a little chair jig! Sometimes it just takes the right collection. 🙂

  • Tina Culbertson (@Novel_Meals) September 11, 2014, 1:24 pm

    I have nominated your blog for the Liebster awards – awards given by bloggers to other bloggers – find some info here: http://novelmeals.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/a-liebster-award/ Have fun!

  • tanya (52 books or bust) September 11, 2014, 1:58 pm

    I’m no fan of short stories either, but because Atwood is Atwood I know i will read this and quite likely it will blow my socks off.

  • Leila @ Readers' Oasis September 12, 2014, 1:21 pm

    I think so many of us who love fiction have this same reticence about short stories . . . that they seem too, you know, SHORT! But in the hands of a master storyteller like Atwood, they are a worthwhile thing, indeed. I will definitely need to read this sometime this fall.

    • Kim September 14, 2014, 9:07 am

      Exactly! When a short story is really awesome, I just want it to keep going. I didn’t feel that way about these most of the time, which says something about Atwood, I think.

  • Sheila (Book Journey) September 13, 2014, 9:36 am

    This intrigues me as I am not one drawn to short stories either for the same reasons you mentioned… I do however like this author.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes September 14, 2014, 9:27 pm

    My copy of Stone Mattress is arriving tomorrow, and I can’t wait! This is the first actual review I’ve seen of it, and it sounds so wonderful

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey September 16, 2014, 6:38 pm

    I have yet to meet a short story collection I completely loved. I’ve read a few short stories I thought were done very well and where I was satisfied with the amount of plot and character development which happened, but that’s not the norm. It sounds like Atwood has done an exceptional job here though and I’m hopeful that I’d also enjoy this despite not being a huge short story fan.

    • Kim September 17, 2014, 8:32 pm

      I think it’s worth giving a shot — it’s really great!

  • Priscilla September 18, 2014, 9:12 am

    This collection is so terrific, and you’re right, it’s the perfect collection for anyone who thinks they don’t like or is intimidated by short stories. One small thing, though…the characters in “I Dream of Zenia..” are not from Cat’s Eye; they are from The Robber Bride.

    • Kim September 21, 2014, 1:45 pm

      Duh! Thank you. That was a brain fart on my part. I read both of those books pretty close together and keep mixing them up.

  • susan September 29, 2014, 5:06 pm

    I’m glad you liked this collection. It was one of my picks for September to check out. I think I’ll like it. I recently have liked her stuff. And that’s interesting about revisiting Zenia from Robber Bride; I remember that book. I always wondered if authors ever dream about their old characters ….
    cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/

  • Unruly Reader October 4, 2014, 12:21 pm

    Sounds great! I struggle with short stories, too, but you’ve sold me on this collection.