Curtis Sittenfeld has a new book of short stories out. This is good news for me as she is the only author whose books I will buy in hardback, on publication; she is a brilliant writer and she never writes the same book twice, which is rarer than you might think. I loved all the stories but one has stayed with me, because it does something quite rare; it features a baby who is a fully rounded character, rather than just a plot point or object. This might sound bizarre but it just works beautifully on the page.
In ‘Off the Record’, journalist Nina flies to Los Angeles from Indianapolis with her six-month-old Zoe, to do a celebrity interview. (Another writer would have let us wonder why on earth Nina, a single parent, didn’t arrange childcare. Sittenfeld supplies the mundane but realistic answer: Zoe won’t take a bottle.)
Nina botches the interview partly because she is distracted by the babysitter texting her to tell her that Zoe is crying non-stop. The texts are great; just reading the one that said I have tried everything (in response to Nina’s hopeful Have you tried jar of pears?) made me shiver. But my favourite part was the ending. Nina arrives back at her hotel having irretrievably messed up her assignment, and there’s a swift flash-forward (a Sittenfeld specialty) revealing that this is the end of her career as a journalist, that she will go on to write grants for non-profits happily enough, but that she will, in the future, for various reasons, kick herself for the way she handled this job. However, there’s a consolation:
But cranky, suspicious, eczema-ridden Zoe – Nina loves her so much! She’s so happy to see her! Outside the hotel, perched on the sitter’s hip, wearing her undignified clothes, Zoe is very familiar and dear, and it occurs to Nina that this is the first time she’s had a chance to miss her daughter.
I love this passage for its serious, affectionate portrait of the baby as a real character, and how it shows Nina’s feelings for her and the turning point in their relationship. It also captures that feeling of extra love for a child even when – especially when – they’re being cranky or grubby or otherwise unappealing to the rest of the world. And the feeling of home being a refuge and a haven when work goes wrong. I’ve never seen that written about before, especially not by a female writer – maybe because it’s unfashionable or unfeminist or just not something women can afford to admit to? – but as the title puts it: You think it, I’ll say it. I await the next Curtis Sittenfeld hardback.