Clare Sestanovich’s “Objects of Desire” feels like the end of a gray, overcast day when you realize you haven’t spoken to anyone since you woke up. Maybe you say a word out loud, just to remind yourself that you can talk, and your voice is scratchy with disuse. In the haze of solitude, everything starts to look like a metaphor: the coffee machine, the clouds, the brown water stain on the ceiling. Life seems beautiful — not in the sunny, ecstatic way but in the melancholy, pensive way.
Sestanovich’s collection of short stories captures this elusive feeling exquisitely. Her stories are filled with yearning and meaning and mundanity that feels meaningful. She has a talent for making anything significant: Skittles, eggs, Tupperware, semen, ice skates, a tile floor. In the story “Old Hope,” the narrator has inherited glow-in-the-dark celestial stickers on her rented bedroom’s ceiling, which combines the childlike nostalgia and bitter realism of adulthood, a theme common throughout “Objects of Desire.” The narrator writes, “Sometimes in the morning there was a star or an orb or a planet’s ring on the pillow beside me.” It seems like the perfect metaphor, imbued with a meaning so potent it can’t be ignored. I don’t know exactly what it’s a metaphor for — and Sestanovich, in a move consistent throughout the stories, doesn’t elaborate on the meanings behind the suddenly significant mundanities she describes. Even further, she resists the urge to romanticize; she follows the line about stars with “I had to remind myself not to make everything into a metaphor.” It feels almost like the reader is being chastised as the narrator chastises herself for reading too far into things. But we are eventually validated in our feeling that there’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere because Sestanovich ends the story with the same image: “I sat up. A star did not fall from the ceiling.”
“Objects of Desire” is heavy with metaphors like this one. From a less skilled writer, this would become exhausting; short stories can get bogged down in their attempt to convey too much in too little space. Like a poem, a short story doesn’t have the freedom of a novel to get its meaning across — it can’t try to do everything a longer narrative does. This means that every word in a short story is that much more important to the meaning of the story as a whole, and this is where metaphor can get tiring. Instead, Sestanovich’s stories are invigorating, no one sentence doing too much of the heavy lifting. She carefully cultivates a mood and a character in each of her stories and guides the reader from beginning to end so seamlessly you’ll forget you’re reading at all.
Short stories generally have to choose one aspect of narrative; while some short stories rely on plot or setting, the stories of “Objects of Desire” rely on character. Sestanovich’s protagonists — all different, all women — share a certain kind of melancholy, a yearning, a sense of being unfulfilled. They are all, to differing degrees, trying to figure out what the world around them wants: In the short story that shares its name with the collection, Leonora finds that “The more passionate her displays of anger, the more gratified her friends are.” In this way, Sestanovich explores the way women are expected to behave and how those expectations match up with reality. She gives us an intimate view of the narrators, a peek behind the curtain of their external facades and into their inner thoughts in a way that makes them seem unabashedly real. In “Annunciation,” for example, Iris “gives herself assignments” to appear as though she doesn’t care, like “eat peanut butter straight from the jar, steal ChapStick from CVS.” In curating carelessness, she realizes that “In general, not caring requires studiousness.” This studied, methodical quirkiness reads as both funny and sad — we can all see ourselves in Iris trying to be something she is not.
Intimacy is something this book both cultivates with its reader and explores in its stories. Even in its most distant narrators, “Objects of Desire” makes us care intensely about them for the short period of time they exist on the pages. Some short stories leave you itching to know more about their protagonist or grateful that you’re not reading a novel because the protagonist is so awful. Sestanovich’s are like the Goldilocks of short story characters: They seep into the pages deeply when you read, full of life and imbued with undeniable existence, and then their vignette is up, and they sink back down. These stories feel complete, even as our experiences with characters end unfulfilled. The open-endedness creates an intimacy with the reader — you have been trusted with this story, just a little snippet of life, and you can do what you will with it. Often, that means sitting with the last page of the story for a while, letting it ooze into your pores. Sometimes, it means flipping immediately to the next story, entranced by Sestanovich’s gentle yet driving prose and wanting to meet her next character.
“Objects of Desire” stays true to its name, examining both the way women move through society, and the things they yearn for and often don’t receive. Sestanovich’s prose is dexterous and haunting, and her style is a comforting sameness in stories that cover different people, places and events. Each story stands on its own while also silently speaking to each other between the covers — it’s up to you, the reader, to figure out what exactly they’re saying.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.