Men and women often have an unequal share of power in their relationships. In the debut story collection, Objects of Desire, Clare Sestanovich explores the relationships men and women share, and examines the power dynamics between them. The men primarily escape without consequence while the women bear the emotional and literal burdens the characters confront in these stories.
From the very onset of the collection, the women struggle to find agency in their lives. In “Annunciation,” we meet Iris, a woman possessing “mild preferences — preferences that can be painlessly ceded to someone else’s.” She spends part of the story in the middle seat of an airplane bookended by a couple who discuss their pregnancy as though Iris is nothing more than a seat cushion. Iris sleeps with a virgin, but even he holds more power, with Iris having to borrow money for an abortion. Meanwhile, her mother is having little luck with men. She is in a serious relationship with a man who has several ex-wives living nearby. The ex-wives are less of a problem than the children he has fathered. When he was younger, he sold a lot of his sperm. The adult children keep showing up, and Iris’s mother can’t handle the intrusions. Like many of the characters in this collection, there are no consequences of significance for the man, but the woman is left to deal with the fallout of these choices — consequences from decisions that were not even hers to make.
The women in Sestanovich’s stories have dreams that go unfulfilled, while the men have — dreams is too generous a word — desires that are usually effortlessly achieved. In the story “By Design,” Suzanne yearns for an unconventional life. Instead she has seen herself slowly evolve into an ordinary suburbanite, married to a man who “bought supermarket herbs.” Despite achieving the traditional markers of success like a good job and family, it is all the exact opposite of what she wants. She finally exerts some agency and acts out in a way to find the unconventional happiness she longs for — she has an affair with a much younger coworker, Laird. Laird leaves the company and it appears for a moment that Suzanne will, like men often do, get away consequence free. Yet after some time passes, Laird files a harassment complaint. It triggers an awakening in her, and she asks for a divorce. Ultimately she never does achieve an unconventional life. When she lives on her own, she fills her apartment with “plain white dishware and a TV with a complicated remote.” It’s not exactly the bucking of convention that she intended. Meanwhile, interwoven in her narrative is the story of her son, Spencer, who is planning his wedding. He and his fiancée have asked Suzanne to design the invitations. Spencer is about to follow down the exact same path as his parents.
Betrayal recurs throughout the collection. In some cases, the characters betray themselves. But often the betrayals happen when men seek to satisfy their needs at the cost of the women in their lives. In the story “Security Questions,” Georgia has been sleeping with Dana, a married man who enjoys an open relationship with his wife. The whole affair seems very above board. Georgia has a texting relationship with Dana’s wife, although the two women do their best not to talk or meet in person. Then one night Georgia locks herself out of her apartment and needs the copy of the key she has given Dana. It is then she learns he has another girlfriend, one who is not his wife and not Georgia.
Georgia is like a lot of the women in the collection, trusting of the men in their lives, only to have that trust implicitly betrayed. The strengths of Sestanovich’s stories lies in finding these subtle ways to have characters betray each other. In “Wants and Needs,” Val’s stepbrother, Zeke, acknowledges the mutual attraction they share. But the moment Zeke calls Val out for her affection, it betrays their relationship. In “Make Believe,” Arthur takes a job in a foreign city and doesn’t ask the narrator to join him. When he moved, “It was unclear if we were still dating, though he texted a lot.” Arthur gets all the necessary emotional support he needs from their relationship, and then unceremoniously informs the narrator he is seeing someone. Yet, if the narrator wasn’t sure if they were in a relationship, was it really even a betrayal? These kinds of gray areas of emotion are where the stories in this collection thrive.
Objects of Desire is a tightly crafted collection of stories grappling with the power dynamics of couples with the women in these relationships often suffering for the benefit of the men. Sestanovich writes with precise prose and winnows the narratives into the most meaningful moments in the lives of her characters. Her skill as a storyteller is drawing out subtle emotional responses even as she crafts broader narratives.
Objects of Desire
By Clare Sestanovich
Knopf Publishing Group
Published June 29, 2021
Ian MacAllen's fiction has appeared in The Offing, 45th Parallel, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland, and elsewhere and nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, trampset, The Negatives, Electric Literature, and Fiction Advocate. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.