You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780525656999 — Hardcover — 272 pp.
A debut collection of short fiction written over a span of ten years, You Have a Friend in 10A highlights Maggie Shipstead’s versatility of fiction and empathic range. Readers are likely to be familiar with Shipstead’s name through her multiple-award-nominated novel Great Circle, out last year. I haven’t read that, or any of her short fiction prior to receiving this collection.
The power of a collection like You Have a Friend in 10A lies in its survey of an author’s depth and range over the span of years. This summation of Shipstead’s short fiction reveals a literary craftsmanship and keen insight into human identity that none of her individual stories can completely reveal on their own.
Yet, this power comes along with the risk that some readers might find the stories within the collection to be uneven, particular with the broad spectrum of setting, plot, and voice that Shipstead employs. I appreciated the majority of the stories in the collection. They sparked reflection, stimulated emotional connection with their everyday characters, and evoked wonder with turns of idiosyncratic language that fit those characters perfectly. Many entertained. Only in a couple cases did the style of the story leave me less engaged. Readers who enjoy a variety of literary short fiction, or who are fans of Shipstead, would find this worthwhile as well.
The title of the collection comes from one of the stories within, but the number 10 seems fitting. Besides the roughly 10 year span of time of publication, 10 stories fill the pages. “The Cowboy Tango” opens things strongly with a story of a love triangle on a Montanan dude ranch between the owner, a young female employee, and his nephew. It’s a beautiful story of rejection, told with a simple honesty that reveals the discomforts and complexity that people abide in relationships of life.
This theme of loss echoes through many of the other stories in the collection, perhaps the only thread that ties the disparate tales. Shipstead’s frank depiction of difficulties and resilience of characters through it reminded me of the short stories of Katherine Anne Porter that I’ve also recently read. It may be solely due to the correlation of timing in my reading these, but the familiarity strikes me in their foundational core of hardship/pain, with Shipstead’s stories being more modern and global in setting.
Unfortunate burdens and complications of life/relationships appear in other stories that I adored. “Souterrain” moves through time to reveal the connections – real and perceived – between an American woman and a French man in Paris, two young people whose past, present, and dire futures link to a wealthy, older, blind man who has just died. It’s a story might be most accessible to readers who crave plot and appreciate mystery and twists, even in short fiction. “Angel Lust” likewise features a character dealing with a recent death, in this case his father. The experience leads to symbolic unloading of emotional weight alongside handling the father’s physical possessions.
The standout story for me was “La Moretta”, a devastating tale of a couple on honeymoon in Europe. The growing antipathy and rancor between two people who realize they might not actually love one another overflows into tragedy. The dissolution of the marriage partnership into dark isolation contrasts with a world where people put value and power in community. It’s a literary horror tale, subtle even in the darkness.
The eponymous “You Have a Friend in 10A” completely changes tone and style from many of the other stories. Though still featuring the theme of loss and missed opportunities in life, there is a humor and parody to this story that makes it lighter. It features a character on a plane who ruminates on her experiences as part of a cult. Though Shipstead changes all the vocabulary, it’s a very clear allusion to Scientology. Though I think the story is largely successful, the ersatz details within really broke my connection to it, and made it sillier than I feel Shipstead intended.
“Acknowledgements” represents a solid literary story whose character of an author reflecting on publishing their first novel and the relevant impact of past relationships also made the story a little less engaging. A tad overlong, its metafiction really felt like an obligatory writing class exercise as opposed to heartfelt.
The remaining stories: “In the Olympic Village”, “Lambs”, “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company”, and “Backcountry” were ones I appreciated less, particularly the closing “Backcountry”. “In the Olympic Village” is a short and simple take on relationships, featuring two athletes hooking up for sex during the international games. Their relationship felt empty, and their likewise seemed to be less depth to the story than Shipstead usually achieves. “Lambs” succeeds very well in its atmosphere around the theme of loss of life. I only would rank it lower compared to other entries due to its relative simplicity. Which, for some may be a strength.
Although I now look forward to reading her novels, I also hope that Shipstead continues to produce short fiction that can be enjoyed in literary magazines and future collections. The successful experimentation and evolution in her writing displayed in You Have a Friend in 10A promise substantial achievements to come with continued maturity in the short form.