Trigger warning for suicide.
Years ago, I read Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio. The collection moves from character to character, all residents of the same, small town, revealing their secrets and thoughts. It ripped away myths about idyllic life on Main Street, America. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Carrianne Leung’s collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You, also destroys a lot of the nostalgic, idealized ideas we might have about suburban life: especially when one of the main characters reveals that the Canadian suburb they live in as recently experienced a series of suicides.
The suicides, which all happened within weeks of each other, surprise many of the suburb’s residents. Over the course of the stories in this collection, we learn that many of these residents thought that they were the only ones with ineffable psychological problems. We learn about the kleptomaniac, the woman who longs for a child but can’t get pregnant with her husband, another woman who believes her flowers are talking to her, and others. One might expect that That Time I Loved You would center on the suicides and treat them as a mystery to be solved. This collection doesn’t do that. The suicides really are unconnected and the time is coincidental.
Instead, That Time I Loved You struck me as a coming-of-age story for the teenaged characters. The teenagers, in the midst of the adults’ turmoil, fall in and out of love, wrestle with the obligations of friendship, whine, complain about each other whining, and on and on. There were stories here that remind me why a lot of older people get so annoyed by the overwhelming emotions of teenagers. We’ve learned perspective since we were their age; not every emotional upset is as world-ending as they believe. Listening to their worried and problems made me want to reach into the book and yell at them to get a grip. My irritation, however, triggered an epiphany. I remembered that, to someone who has only been on the planet for 13, 15, or 17 years, breaking up with a first love really does feel world-ending.
That Time I Loved You is an unsettling read but a useful one. It reminds us how deeply people feel below respectable facades. There is no such place as a perfect small town or suburb because we all have things we wrestle with that we really don’t want other people to know about. It fits in the sub-genre of collections, like Winesburg, Ohio, that pushes us into another person’s shoes and forces us to walk around in them. It’s an uncomfortable practice, obviously, but one that we periodically need to do to maintain a healthy sense of empathy.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.