My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, ed Jeffrey Eugenides

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The Independent Culture

Love must be one of the most popular literary topics, and one of the hardest to write about well. Judging by the number of US writers included in this collection (non-Americans don't even make up a third of the total), it's also a subject that seems to preoccupy those on the other side of the Atlantic far more than their European counterparts – something I can't quite believe. That small gripe aside, Jeffrey Eugenides is to be applauded for including in this collection of "Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro" some of the very finest writing.

Alice Munro's story about a philandering husband who is forced to endure his wife's love for another man after she develops Alzheimer's and goes into a home is quietly devastating and, most importantly of all, has us questioning what love means – something which all the best of these stories also do. William Faulkner's Miss Havisham-inspired "A Rose for Emily", about a wealthy, reclusive spinster, is ghoulish and macabre yet psychologically absolutely true. Harold Brodkey's wonderful "First Love and Other Sorrows" asks which love is greater, familial or connubial, and also whether love always necessarily involves sacrifice.

It's interesting, too, how many of the male writers included in the collection – Brodkey, David Bezmozgis, Milan Kundera, Maupassant, Gilbert Sorrentino – write about very young women when it comes to love and the fairer sex. It means stories told in recollection of younger days, of course, but when they are offset by Faulkner's ageing, lonely spinster and William Trevor's unpleasantly coarse older wife in "Lovers of Their Time", one does begin to wonder how much men associate love with female youth and beauty. The five women writers included focus almost exclusively on marriage (though Miranda July rejects this option altogether), suggesting how they tend to view the outcome of love.

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