Single, Carefree, Mellow

By Katherine Heiny

Knopf. 240 pages. $23.95

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Langemak

To encounter the wry, funny stories in Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow is to experience the best form of simultaneous pleasure and sadness.

First, Heiny's narrators offer a pleasure not unlike new friendship. Reading this collection feels like discovering a companionable chorus of quirky inner monologues not entirely unlike your own. Directly on the heels of this feeling - and this is not without its own pleasure - is the touch of existential sadness that comes when you are reminded that your own private thoughts may not be as unique as you had previously supposed. For the pleasure of reading these stories - and they are so smart, and so moving, that I intend to read them again - this disappointment in the originality of my own inner life is worth enduring.

Most of Heiny's characters seem to live in a flux between pleasure and sadness. If this collection has a theme, it is the complicated positions that love can work itself into. The first story's narrator agrees to a meeting over drinks with her boyfriend's jilted wife. Another character endures slightly creepy magicians to throw a birthday party for her son. Another character invites a clergyman to live with her family as she conducts an extramarital affair. All of Heiny's characters live in the proverbial eyes of their own storms, calm and alert to detail and ironies while their complicated lives rage on around them.

Unified by voice and theme, this collection has an overall shape that unifies it even more. At the heart of Single, Carefree, Mellow is one continuous story, broken into three stand-alone parts placed throughout the book. This centerpiece not only creates a touchstone for the rest of the stories, but it also supplies suspense, as the reader waits to find out if the worst will happen to its characters (the genius of Heiny's work is that much depends on your definition of "the worst"). Other stories draw the reader in through successful use of a second person narrator.

Heiny's characters are not always single, carefree, or mellow, but they are intensely human in their desire to create moments of each of those states in their lives. While these stories remind us that none of us are particularly original, unholy, or witty, they also perform the act central to the best literature: They remind us that we are not alone.