There’s not a false note in Joan Frank’s short story collection, In Envy Country, winner of the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame Press. Her stories combine rapturous surface detail and harrowing psychological acuity. Frank’s characters, like most of us, can’t resist measuring themselves against those friends, family and business associates who seem blessed with beauty or success, privilege or power.
“The very beautiful owned a secret,” declares the forty-year-old narrator of “Savoir Faire, Savoir Vivre,” a displaced Californian in Paris (“trying to write, and to read all I can”), where she has met up with a former high school friend, a professional swimmer from Sacramento, whose sister Nikki, a painter, had been “the most dazzling girl in school.” Sipping wine cocktails in a French café, the two women reminisce and commiserate, sharing their nearly morbid fascination with the unbearably gorgeous Nikki. (“You could never come to terms with beauty like that, but even at fourteen you could see that the world was ruled by it.”) As we learn of the rise and fall of Nikki’s fortunes, the birth of a daughter, a broken marriage, artistic struggles, and finally “showing her age, like other mortals,” we’re asked to consider beauty as an abstract force, troubling and destructive to all who fall within its orbit. “Beauty torches the place,” the narrator insists.
Perception is a prism that changes with the light. In Frank’s stories, a character’s epiphany is no sure bet or shortcut to the truth of the matter. Her characters always respond in character. Point of view is everything. We’re uncertain at times where to place our allegiance. Reader anxiety is half the fun here, but it requires a willingness to step outside of our comfort zone. Frank works unsettling magic with awkward social situations like dinner parties and family gatherings, all of which invariably erupt with repressed hostilities and dark revelations.
In the title story an ostentatiously wealthy couple argue and storm out of their mansion at dinnertime, leaving their guests—a married couple of modest middle-class means—to watch the oven as well as the argument itself framed in the picture window like a silent movie. The visiting couple find themselves reevaluating their own marriage. In “A Thing That Happens” a dinner party is derailed when two guests describe an experience from a recent European vacation: the different way men vs. women respond to the sight of a twentysomething blonde with enormous breasts (“way out of proportion to the rest of her… like a neon sign… a wheelbarrow”). The men, predictably, are delighted, whereas the women’s gaze is fraught with anger and, yes, envy. (“Because that is what men want.”) The anecdote, told by an aging couple, is set against the short story’s central character, a young woman coming into her sexuality, whom we meet in the opening sentence: “Sara Bream gathered her breath so that her pillowy twenty-year-old chest, in its soft China-blue sweater, filled to even greater, lovelier loft: she let it out slowly and forcefully.”
Frank’s range is impressive. She can write funny and sharp about modern office politics (“A Note on the Type” and “Betting on Men”), craft a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about growing up in 1960s Sacramento (“Rearview”), and even take us on a wildly disturbing transgressive visit to a Spanish sex club (“Sandy Candy”). While In Envy Country hasn’t received the high-profile attention of, say, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, Joan Frank’s provocative short story collection is fully deserving of similar praise and wide readership.