Smart Girl, Dumb Love by Kelsye Nelson

Smart Girl, Dumb Love by Kelsye NelsonDisdaining both the exceptional circumstances and people of traditional romance, and their mostly happy endings, Nelson draws interest from tales of average people facing entirely mundane issues.

This collection, the first volume of the Breakup Girl series, contains three short stories It also contains a sizeable extract from Nelson’s novel The Secret Life of Sensei Shi which forms a self-contained short story of its own.

The first story, ‘Five Things You’ll Hate About Me’, is a monologue delivered by a young woman on the loss of love’s first bloom, and the stages of disillusioned irritation that follow. Nelson’s casting of this progression as natural, even inevitable, paired with a quite emotionless tone, creates a vibrant picture of a woman mature enough to realise life isn’t happily ever after but also frightened to make the utter commitment necessary to accept each other’s flaws without needing to condone them.

‘Surprise and Disbelief’, the second story, follows several years in the life of a young woman unable to commit to her high-school sweetheart. Trapped in a cycle of thrill-seeking liaisons and returns to his stable but less erotic side, she repeatedly accepts his forgiveness but not his offers of marriage. Built around the trope that ‘girls love a bad boy’, her experience will either resonate with the reader or cause them to dismiss her as shallow. Either way her character is consistently well drawn, making both her actions and the – potentially expected – ending plausible.

The third story, ‘Girl on a Hot Tin Roof’, is both the most emotionally powerful and the most mundane. A young woman’s sense of freedom at owning a flat above the surrounding roofs turns first to irritation then to fear when builders erect scaffolding that lets them see into her flat. Written in the second person, this story forces the protagonist’s experience on the reader in a way that echoes the pressure of the builders’ gaze.

As befits a collection built around the idea that real attraction often screws you up more than it lifts you up, none of the stories end with a strong sense of closure. Depending on the reader’s perspective, this either enhances the realism or deflates it.

Viewed from a purely technical perspective, each story is a solid example of drawing depth from sparse prose.

While I appreciated it from a craft perspective, this book didn’t really grab me. I recommend it to readers looking for character pieces about ordinary people living normal lives.

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