Zoë's Reviews > Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
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Sep 02, 10

bookshelves: short-stories
Read from August 21 to 26, 2010

"He held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free."

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is a collection of 11 short stories by Maile Meloy. The book reminds me strongly of another collection of short stories I read recently, Vanishing and Other Stories. Many of Meloy's take place in Montana and Idaho, just across the border from where Willis' occur in southern Alberta. They also have the definite similarity in their western themes, and many of the characters seemed alike. "Two-Step" by Meloy and "Traces" by Willis are eerily similar, both about woman who are paranoid their husbands are having affairs, and both using the same plot twist near the end of the story. Still, Meloy manages to put her own mark on the topic, with the dialogue between the two main female characters being particularly strong.

"The whole soul mates idea,” Alice said bitterly, “is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours."

Perhaps it was partially my recent read of Vanishing which prevented me from being blown away by Meloy, although there were many stories in the collection which I loved. Particularly "Travis, B." which for me, drew connections to Willis' "The Weather" with its cowboy and unachievable city girl relationship. Despite the deja-vu I felt, I loved the story. In "Travis, B." Beth Travis is a recent law school graduate who takes on a part-time job teaching about public-school law out of paranoia that she will end up working in a shoe store. Although Beth gets a job at a law firm, she still has to make the nine and a half hour drive from Missoula to Glendive, Montana where she meets Chet, a ranch worker who suffered from polio as a child. "I've never done anything so stupid in my life" she tells him, and he quickly develops a crush on her after walking into her class on the first day when he's wandering town and it's one of the few buildings which has a light on. The connection between Chet and Beth is both tentative and beautiful and Meloy is at her best with these flawed, human characters.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is a collection tied together by the loneliness of the characters, by how displaced they are even within the stories, hardly belonging to the worlds in which they exist. Another story I really loved, "Lovely Rita", features a young man and his best friend who work at building the local nuclear power plant, which once turned on will result in the death of all the local fish.

"He thought there should have been something sad about how little he was tied up with the place, but instead it felt like freedom. He was free because it wasn’t his water here, and they weren’t his fish."

In "The Girlfriend" a father meets the lover of the man who killed his daughter and who has now been sent to prison. Meloy perfectly captures the awkward envy and obsession the girl feels, and even though the wife and daughter never appear in the story the reader gets to know both characters through the layers of powerful subtext.

Not all of the stories take place in Montana but my favourite ones do- it is clear that the Western landscape is where Meloy feels the most comfortable and when she is less concerned about making the setting realistic is she does a better job of making rich and involved characters. "Liliana" is the story of a man's grandmother, a Nazi era actress, who appears on his doorstep after she has been proclaimed dead and although it was an enjoyable read it lacked the emotional strength I felt of stories like "Travis, B" and "The Girlfriend". These weaker stories are the reason that Both Ways falls slightly short of the love I had for Vanishing.

While reviewing Vanishing I went looking for a story, called "The Children", trying to figure out why I couldn't find it in the collection only to realize it was a story actually by Meloy. Meloy shares a calm and careful style of prose with Willis, offering precise language and avoiding flowery description. In "The Children" an older man considers leaving his wife for a much younger woman who once gave swimming lessons to his children. "The Children" is one of the final stories in Both Ways and it directly references the poem by A. R. Ammons: “One can’t have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it.” which appears as an epigraph of the book as well as when the husband in question asks "What kind of fool wanted it only one way?" The poem perfectly epitomes Meloy's book, so well in fact I almost wish she hadn't used it in "The Children". Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is a collection of stories about conflicted desires and complicated relationships, written with a controlled beauty that makes Meloy's voice powerfully quiet and her characters both relatable and unforgettable.
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