CuteBadger's Reviews > Perfect Lives

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson
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Dec 04, 2011

liked it
Read in November, 2011

I’m not usually much of a one for short stories, in the same way as I prefer full-grown trees to bonsai. I can admire the artistry involved in creating a perfect miniature, but I don’t feel an emotional connection to short stories as I often find them cramped and in need of more elbow room. I like to really get to know a character, inside and out, in order to forge a relationship with them – short stories tend to be sketches rather than oil paintings so don’t give me enough time to engage.

I approached reading Perfect Lives by tackling one story a day, so I could let each one have an equal amount of consideration and enough time for them to “settle” in my head. This meant that it took nearly a fortnight to get through the book (well, 11 days to be precise), which is much longer than I usually take with any one fiction book.

As I’m much more used to reading novels, and as I have a job which involves summarising long complex documents, I’ve got into bad habits and often find myself skipping some of what’s on each page of a novel. However, I had to force myself not to do this with Polly Samson’s stories as each word is vital – skip anything and you risk missing the heart of a story, a turning point in a character’s life or a detail that illuminates the whole. The short stories in Perfect Lives aren’t so much about what happens, but rather about why things happen and the effect on the characters within them. This means that slow but sure is the way to go.

Having said all that, I didn’t enjoy all the stories equally and felt that some were less successful than others, but what I loved about all of them were the small details which breathe life into the characters and make them real. For example, right at the beginning of the first story, The Egg, we’re told that Celia comes down the stairs with her dressing gown “belt tightly wound several times at the waist”, which instantly gives an insight into her character and emphasises her role as someone trying to keep things together, tied up and under control.

The irony of the title of the collection is emphasised in the far from perfect lives lived by the stories’ characters. Though their middle-class veneer could lead others to think that all is well, and the characters themselves try to pretend this is the case, the reality can be very different. I found The Man Across The River very unsettling, not so much due to the incident of the title, but more in relation to the benign neglect of the child by the mother more interested in going to Greenham Common than in looking after her daughter (a modern day Mrs Jellyby). Children and their view of the world is also dealt with in Ivan Knows where all the adults disregard and patronise Ivan. He, however, has insights into the world that they never will.

I wasn’t as keen on The Birthday Present, which I felt was the weakest of the collection. It seemed to be trying to be a different type of short story, one with a twist in the tale as the identity of the “lover” is concealed until right at the end. This trick didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book and made the story feel like a student writing exercise.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but was left afterwards with a sense of sadness. All the stories seemed to have a sense of melancholy seeping out of them, which infected me in the reading of them. I was left feeling that I admired Perfect Lives more than I loved it.

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