Friday, December 19, 2014



Someone gave me this book and, at a glance, I didn’t expect it would align with my literary tastes. Now I feel more like that person knows me better than I know myself! This whole collection resonated with me more than I ever could have anticipated. 

It’s a sad backstory. Marina Keegan, a gifted and determined aspiring writer, died five days after graduating from Yale. She had a job lined up at the New Yorker and this collection serves as ample evidence of her writing aptitude. Youth is coveted because it represents potential, which is why unexpected deaths often seem all the more tragic the younger the victim. Keegan had an abundance of potential, but rather than focus on what won’t be let’s instead focus on what she did accomplish, a list that includes the contents of this collection of her notably astute writing.

The collection features both fiction and nonfiction, but opens with the fiction. The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” demonstrates Keegan’s capability for capturing the complexity of real human experiences, relationships, and emotions. Keegan explores the intersection of awkward and tragic. Claire, a college student, doesn’t know what to feel when her regular hookup dies. Their relationship wasn’t defined: they spent a lot of time together, had sex regularly, and doubtless both cared for each other, but still shied away from terms like boyfriend and girlfriend. Now people expect Claire to say something at his funeral and his long-term ex-girlfriend wants a strange favor. As I read this story, I couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly the type of tense situation that overdramatic televisions shows like to utilize for huge blowup confrontation scenes. In contrast, everything in “Cold Pastoral” is coolly understated, drawing attention to the line between behaving civilly and repressing emotion. My only criticism is that I found minor mentions of gay characters reinforced some insensitive stigmas.

In the next story, “Winter Break,” another college student brings her boyfriend home and their sweetness makes her mother doubt her own relationship. Like “Cold Pastoral,” emotions and revelations are all subtle and understated. There’s little closure regarding any final decision; the story focuses more on the catalyst.

You know it’s a good collection when you struggle picking a favorite story, but “The Ingenue” definitely falls near the top of my list. This one features a young woman who suspects her long distance actor boyfriend is cheating on her with the girl he kisses every night in his play. The story builds to a positively perfect literary moment during a game of Yahtzee. However, I think the story should have ended at that powerful moment; I didn’t like the end much and think it weakens a strong story.

“Hail, Full of Grace” continues Keegan’s exploration of real, complicated life. Audrey’s home for the holidays and just knows she can’t avoid running into her ex, her ex who she dated throughout high school and into college, who clearly thought they were meant for each until Audrey got pregnant and gave up the baby for adoption. Fast forward through her life: romance hasn’t worked out for her. Everyone told her she couldn’t stay with her high school sweetheart, but she never fell in love again. Now she’s ready for kids, so she adopted a baby on her own, but it’s impossible not to reflect on what might have been. I loved this story, but still wanted Keegan to take it a little farther. It’s one of those stories that feels like it halts too soon after it starts rolling.

Moving into Keegan’s nonfiction, I had three favorites there as well. The first, “Why We Care about Whales,” uses a memory of beached whales to pose a concern: “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans.” Keegan notes how people rush to help these whales and draws attention to instances where humans spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort on helping animals that might already be doomed and yet label neighbor or co-worker crises as “not my problem.” I found this essay really wonderful, not the least bit shy of asking hard questions.

I also particularly enjoyed “Against the Grain” about Keegan’s experiences as a celiac. As she’s the first to acknowledge, this is a timely subject with the popularity of gluten-free products and diets. However, she falls in the category of avoids due to necessity rather than preference. She spent much of her early years in and out of hospitals until doctors eventually pinpointed gluten as the troublesome factor. Keegan reminds her readers that gluten-free might be trendy now, but it was little known and even less understood during her childhood. This story is as much about Keegan’s relationship with her mother as it is about gluten. Once aware of the problem, Keegan’s mother championed her daughter’s health. She researched extensively, calling product companies directly for specific, accurate information. She always thought ahead, going around the neighborhood at Halloween and suggesting some gluten-free candy options to the neighbors. When Keegan went to college, her mother fought hard for new protocol in the dining hall that required a clear listing of ingredients for every food. Keegan herself struggled between gratitude for all her mother does and irritation that she frequently calls attention to how Keegan is different. Keegan shares an unsettling story about when she and her mother watched a video of Keegan’s first birthday. In the video her mother brings out the birthday cake and they all start singing “Happy Birthday.” In real life her mother starts hyperventilating and crying and repeats, “I’m killing you. I’m killing you.” Keegan’s real death adds another emotional layer to all her musings here, because she spent so much time working to ensure minor amounts of gluten don’t ultimately shorten her lifespan - and then she died at age 22 in car crash.

The last of my favorite nonfiction pieces is “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” in which Keegan puts her own struggle with the meaning and purpose of life and mankind on paper. We’re all going to die eventually, she points out - not in the individual sense but mankind will die eventually. Despite all this understandable concern over pushing back on environmental issues before they catch up with us, the earth has a lifespan. When the sun dies, so will life on Earth. Now we’re talking billions of years, but what made this essay so fascinating for me is that Keegan poses the theory that mankind is being tested...from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one. This test has a time limit, though. The only task: develop our technology enough to find a sustainable way to either live in space or relocate to another planet before the timer (the sun) runs out. It’s a short essay that mostly initiates a discussion rather than runs with it and you can easily argue that it’s all a moot point if we kill ourselves off long before the sun dies, but nevertheless it’s an interesting and engaging debate.

I found Keegan’s work a little stronger on the fiction side, but that could easily be my personal preference for fiction talking. Across both formats, she keeps her work smart but simple with understated messages. Both her fiction and nonfiction are clearly very well-researched with her fiction featuring characters from all kinds of different backgrounds. Her fiction simply feels real, with dynamic characters and a natural voice.

By the end of this collection, I found myself crying purely about Keegan’s death rather than anything in her work. She puts so much of herself into her stories and essays that over the course of these 200 pages I started to feel like I knew her and then to feel her loss, both as a writer and a person, more sharply. I’m grateful to everyone who championed Keegan’s work to see this collection through to publication; it was worth every ounce of effort.

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