Reviewed: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller Published by W.W.Norton, 2017
In January, Mary Miller published her third book Always Happy Hour. A southern writer, living in Mississippi, writes love stories with a southern bent. In her fifteen short stories, Mary Miller shows that even the back roads of southern cities and college towns could hold the same misguided love affairs and friendships as the metropolitan landscapes found in most emerging authors’ collections. Her characters grapple with social anxiety and self-doubt, and if this collection was not already relatable enough—Mary Miller weaves in themes of body image, divorce, and parental relationships throughout.
The collection opens with Instructions, which has the narrator left alone in her boyfriend’s apartment for the day, following his written instructions on how to look after the place for the day. This story sets up Miller’s commentary on the tenuous nature of relationships that pops up in each subsequent piece. The narrator considers the difference between saying “love you” and “I love you” to her partner, wanting to make sure she says the right one so as not to push him away or pull him too close. Only in two stories, At One Time This Was The Longest Covered Walkway in the World” and the eponymous Always Happy Hour do we spend time with the same characters—Alice, her boyfriend, and his nameless son. In both, we are Alice as she navigates her boyfriend’s pre-formed life, trying to find her place as his lover and a possible caretaker for his son. Little Bear tackles the isolation and loneliness of motherhood and marriage in just five pages. There is a feeling of complacency that hovers over the collection. The complacency—be it about an unsatisfying relationship or an uncomfortable situation, can best be summed up by a seasick narrator on an uncomfortable cruise with her distant boyfriend and his parents: “I take off my panties because it’s easier to just let him fuck me.”
The two standout pieces are Big Bad Love and First Class. Big Bad Love sets itself apart from the rest by not being about a boyfriend, husband, or lost love. The narrator works at a temporary shelter for neglected and abused children, showing young girls care and affection they would never get otherwise. This is the first example of Miller’s characters interacting with humanity around them, and not just their immediate partners and friends. Like the previous stories, Big Bad Love shows the fear and doubt that comes with caring for another living thing, but this time, the narrator has the opportunity to be a successful caretaker. First Class takes the narrator on a vacation to Miami with her friend Shelly. It is readily apparent that this is a toxic friendship for the narrator, as her friend turns more obnoxious and insufferable, and instills in her anxiety over her appearance and a profound feeling of loneliness. Mary Miller proves herself to be the anti-Elena Ferrante, exhibiting the exhilarating, addictive, and cyclical nature of a toxic female friendship, instead of romanticizing it.
Much like the other young female writers in her genre, Miller pulls from her own life. This is not quite autofiction the way it has emerged in the last few years, but these relationships—the failing ones, the successful ones, and all the flings in between—are so clearly culled from Miller’s past. I do not say this to accuse her of being a lazy writer, who rewrites her own history to bind together and sell as a book. Even without the dedication “For my exes” that opens the collection and the last line of her Acknowledgements (“And, of course, my exes: you’ve given me material for years to come”) it is abundantly clear to her readers that all of the heartbreak, self-doubt, bad sex, and good sex happened because by the time they reach the last page they feel as though it happened to them too. A true artist should not be afraid to mine his or her own life for stories. To those who argue it takes no talent to write a fictionalized version of themself, I would argue the exact opposite. It takes the most expert level of storytelling and empathy to make an individual story matter to the greater humanity. Mary Miller does exactly this. Who among us hasn’t been trapped with a friend you should have dumped years ago, or lusted after someone too young, or felt terrified at the prospect of caring for something so small and vulnerable? And even those who have not experienced a single one of those events has most certainly felt the anxiety and self-doubt that comes with those kinds of relationships, feelings these characters embody so well they crawl under the skin of their readers and never leave, even after the collection has long since been read.
Cassandra Baim grew up outside of Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has previously been published on Medium and The Flexist. When she’s not selling books at New York’s most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.