Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: This Cake is For the Party, by Sarah Selecky

I had the great privilege of reading with Sarah Selecky about a year ago at the Pivot at the Press Club reading series here in Toronto. It was a fun night and she recited a fantastic excerpt from her short story “How Healthy Are You?” – a tale lovable for several reasons, not the least of which because it has a character named “Mark S.” in it. The story was, of course, part of the manuscript for her forthcoming This Cake is For the Party, a book that has since become the talk of the town, getting shortlisted for the Giller Prize and profiled in a number of major newspapers.

There are plenty of unifying tropes and character types that hold This Cake ... together. The majority of the stories are populated by urbanites in their late twenties or early thirties, coming into successes and money and finding and losing themselves, often for the first time. These stories are full of organic food and artificial friendships, expensive wines and waning love affairs. They capture with near-perfect precision the foibles of the modern-day yuppie attempting to navigate the complexities of the contemporary world.

The chief strength of Sarah’s writing is the way she is able to successfully hold up a mirror with descriptive powers that are spot on to reflect back observations that the reader has always taken for granted. In her story “Watching Atlas”, a character drinks from a glass of Coke, “… her teeth swimming through the caramel liquid.” In “This is How We Grow as Humans”, a young waitress is described “ … dressed in a black miniskirt, heavy boots and skinny bare legs. She has a piercing on her face: a small silver stud …” Each of these descriptions are instantly recognizable. Even the story “Standing Up for Janey”, which I considered the weakest of the bunch, has this wonderful way of describing expensive red wine bottles lined up on a rack – “moody.” Genius.

Of the 10 stories in This Cake ... , the strongest is clearly the final piece, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas,” a story that impresses on a number of levels. It’s written flawlessly from a first-person male perspective – without feeling misplaced in a collection that is unmistakably feminine at its heart – and tells the story of a man trying to love a woman who is sinking under the weight of her own mental illness. It skillfully examines the psychological cost of intense creativity, a kind of metaphoric and literal fire that consumes the woman at the centre of the narrator’s obsession.

The enduring strength of This Cake is For the Party is the way it lends a rich emotional life to its characters, even if (and especially if) many of those characters are faithless, lost or superficial. Everyone in the collection is drawn and examined with intense care, and it makes the book a rewarding read from start to finish.

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