Thank Your Luck Stars
By Sherrie Flick
Autumn House Press, 2018
200 Pages, $17.95
Review by Alexa Dodd
The apropos title of Sherrie Flick’s second short story collection comes from the last line of the first story. In “How I Left Ned,” a woman decides to leave her husband after she stumbles across two thieves’ farm stand, where they’re selling “hot” corn. As she rides off with these two strangers, she doesn’t look back. The encounter has revealed to her just how unhappy her marriage is, has made her realize her need to escape. Thus, her decision to gang up with criminals is as unavoidable as it is unexpected. The closing sentence, “I thanked my lucky stars,” propels us into the subsequent stories, even as we reflect on the absurd, yet profound trajectory that we’ve just read.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press, 2018) is about relationships, often romantic and familial, but, more deeply, about the relationships people form with their own destinies. “How I Left Ned,” like nearly all of the ones that follow, unearths questions about fate and responsibility, about the things we can’t choose and the choices we make as a result. These are stories of inevitability, and yet Flick manages to surprise us in the way she reveals the tenacity of the human spirit.
In “Open and Shut,” for example, we watch the relationship between John and Sarah unfold, even though the narrator tells us from the beginning that the relationship will fail. Instead of showing that separation, the story keeps circling into John and Sarah’s pasts. Sarah’s backstory, like the main narrative, is always recounted in the present tense, as though the past has an inescapable hold on the present. As readers, the juxtaposition allows us to see how the past brings them together even as it pulls them apart. We have the sense that these protagonists cannot choose where their story is headed. When John tells Sarah he’s never felt as comfortable with another woman, “Sarah knows right then she’ll break his heart. She smiles and says, ‘Me too.’ Not today, but already she’s nostalgic, something valuable is slipping away just as it’s handed to her.”
It is as though neither Sarah nor John can stop the decisions that ultimately separate them. Flick aptly describes how “John is the sound of footsteps. He is the apartment door as it clicks shut. Sarah is the couch and the window and the dark, startling night.” Sarah and John become inanimate objects, even abstract concepts, as though to emphasize their lack of autonomy.
Even still, the story raises questions about responsibility. When John touches Sarah’s breasts for the first time, we’re told that “It feels like stealing,” a verb that rings with censure, especially when we learn that, years later, the thought of John will make Sarah shudder. What is more, despite the fatalistic trajectory of the story, there is a sense that Sarah can and does gain some freedom. By the end, we discover that she chose to leave her previous ex in San Francisco in order to embark on a new life in Nebraska. Though, in Nebraska, she finds herself in another troubled relationship, the weaving of past and present, ending on that earlier decision, suggests that Sarah is capable of autonomy. While the story implies that Sarah is trapped in a cycle, it hints that she may have some say in her destiny after all.
In “Ball and Chain,” a mother and daughter’s otherwise inoculated conversation over breakfast is punctuated with talk about death and marriage. “I’ll be ready when the time comes,” the mother says, which is a mockery of something the daughter once said, regarding death. The mother is joking about being ready to order, but the quip holds deeper meaning when the narrator explains that her father is dying. Here, Flick is again exploring the choices people make—even if it’s a choice in attitude—in the face of the unavoidable. By the end of the story, the idea of “being ready” comes also to signify a kind of defiance to preconceived roles.
Though a majority of the stories in the collection revolve around marital complications or failed romantic relationships, Flick’s narratives resist turning stale or predictable. What is more, the stories build on each other throughout the collection, like pieces of a larger whole. For example, “Trees,” a two-paragraph vignette cataloguing various metaphors for trees, echoes into the next story, “Still Life.” When the suicidal protagonist notices how “The trees’ silhouetted arms sang hallelujah,” we recall the metaphor from a few pages before, where the trees “are skinny men in ill-fitting suits selling bibles.”
While some of the shorter pieces do not resonate as powerfully as the longer ones, Flick’s prose is tirelessly tight and penetrating. She gives us just enough information to understand, but not too much that all of our questions are answered. Likewise, her characters are lovingly and subtly crafted, as though Flick has spent a lifetime coming to know each one and she needs only a few words to tell us exactly who they are.