And Yet They Were Happy
by Helen Phillips

Leapfrog Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-935-24818-7.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 06/27/2012

Fiction: Literary

Deceptively easy to read because of Helen Phillips' effective use of everyday language, And Yet They Were Happy dances between reality and fantasy as it follows a young woman and her partner, starting out to build a life together. In nineteen sections, each containing a set of two-page stories, the author chronicles the challenges of their modern existence in fables that offer unexpected twists. Yet the feelings and situations are achingly familiar.

In "Bride #3" the woman's vision of her dream wedding outfit seems impossible to fulfill. No store in New York City has the enormous straw hat that she has imagined, and she is deeply disappointed that "reality lags so very far behind everything else." Yet the author brings us along quickly, without any sense of rushing, as the bride discovers that her imagination can reshape itself around a hat chosen by her husband-to-be.

Though Phillips doesn't shy away from looking hard at the range of human frailty, cruelty, and strangeness, she leaves us with the feeling that we can reshape our imaginations around people and events, and so make new discoveries, open minds, and find hope. Her unblinking look at the world is balanced by her striking willingness to explore wild possibility. And the brief glimpses of her characters are so evocative that they stir deep emotion and offer genuine insight, all the more powerful for having been gained in so few words.

Open to any page, and a brief but complete story is spread open before you. The challenge of such a short form is tremendous, but when managed well, as it certainly is here, it has the impact of a good poem or painting. A small world is revealed, and we are connected to it. Strung together, the seemingly disparate parts show us something larger.

Helen Phillips has the fresh view of youth, which wakes us up. And wants to shake us up. With a light touch, she recognizes a deeply shadowed future. In "Regime #7," for instance, we have been ordered to grow raspberries on our windowsills, only to give up the crop on demand, and in "Monster #6" a mother and child make their home in a traffic circle. Yet the stories keep offering up moments of tenderness: the parents in "Regime #7" teach their children to do somersaults across the bed, the mother in "Monster #6" sits upright in the tall grass with her daughter's head in her lap. It is this tenderness that makes the world bearable and explains how, in the face of doubt, fear, loss, and contrary conceptions, yet they were happy. Would that we all could absorb the moral of these engaging and potent tales.

A graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, Helen Phillips is the recipient of several awards, including the 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Her work has appeared in such prestigious publications as PEN America, the Mississippi Review, and an Emerging Authors anthology. She teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College. Learn more on her website.

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