Each and every drama in Lauren Groff’s short story collection Delicate Edible Birds devastates the reader. Vonnegut advises writers in his amusing way to “be a sadist”. Groff paid attention. Her achingly graceful, pointed prose leaves no question that her characters suffer. Some grieve, some deteriorate, some agonize but in consequential, life-altering ways, each character hurts.
In “Sir Fleeting”, a grandmother reminisces about her own romantic life on the eve of her granddaughter’s wedding. Ancel de Chair, a charming, mysterious and wealthy French baron weaves in and out of her three marriages, beginning during that first honeymoon. A rabble of butterflies alights in 1956 Buenos Aries, delighting the baron even as her husband is disgusted by the infestation. Urged outside by the French playboy, she sees the wonder in his eyes as he captures the swarm on film.
The butterflies seethed over the streets, turned buildings into shuddering things, turned the most stoic of people into sleepwalkers, marveling at the delicate dreams at their feet.
This moment, frozen in her mind, comes back to her again and again. Ancel charms her each time he enters her life, with kisses and sweet words in elevators, a half-naked hotel flirtation, and happily trapped in a corner where the baron seems to notice no one else inhabiting the room. Never does he begin a full-on affair, but never does he wander far from her mind. As the wedding approaches, he returns, joins her for tea, and only after he is gone does she realize, with horror, the hidden character of the man who occupied years and years of her fantasies.
The title story ends the collection. We find ourselves in France during World War II among an international group of journalists. The story belongs to Bern, the lone woman amid a varied group of men. As Hitler invades Paris, the writers and photographers flee through the countryside barely ahead of the Nazis. Bern is a woman on the cusp of a changing world. She curses, she fights, she invites calamity, and she sleeps with whomever catches her eye without thought of consequences. As they flee, their Jeep runs out of gas on a godforsaken rural road, so the men push the vehicle until lights appear ahead like a vision. But the haven quickly turns into a prison and Bern’s feminine assets into a deficit. Locked in a provincial farmer’s barn, the group is united to protect Bern’s body and her dignity. But as the days pass, hunger and desperation at the approach of Nazi forces mount, disconnecting first one and then another of the men who’ve known Bern from the idea of protecting her questionable honor. The consequences Bern never entertained are dire.
Each story shines light on the mysterious complexity of the the human mind and its capacity for injury. Groff explores the relative strengths and weaknesses of her characters’ resolve, the immeasurable pain withstood by some, the paltry annoyances which cause others to break. It seems there are monsters among us; some are born, some are raised, and some emerge under unimaginable duress from the most ordinary of women and men. Those unfortunate ones, those forced monsters, can only endure their trials through denial or regret, if they manage to endure at all.