On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

39 thoughts on “On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

  1. Thankfully I don’t need converting to short stories, even now I’m reading a Ray Bradbury collection; but I will definitely make some space for Doerr on my shelf, your quotes from his story are indeed exquisite and the prose seem so assuredly fluid that now I’m very keen to discover Dorotea’s fate! πŸ™‚

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  2. My hubby is like that re short stories. They a re very different craftwise from novels and I love them. I think they can have such lovely sentences as you say. If it was hundreds of pages of lovely sentences we would probably lose the gist etc and get overwhelmed but the short story is a perfect medium for a different kind of writing.

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  3. A good short story is like a good poem. It’s all about using the right words in the right place. I love the short stories of Alice Munroe and Margaret Atwood, to name a few. The quotes you included are excellent examples of using the right words. I also know from experience that writing a good short story can often be more difficult than writing a novel. I have some I’ve worked on for years to get just right.

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    • I do hope you enjoy Doerr, Mike. You might sell Pat with his novel, which is promoted on the front of this collection as ‘Bestselling’. I’m hoping to give it a try soon, it’s called All The Light We Cannot See.

      I’ve enjoyed your pointer, to Beaded Quill. What an interesting post. I see what you mean, but I’m still not convinced by that Doerr sentence.

      And thank you, Mike, for reading about my literary flights of obsession/ enthusiasm πŸ™‚

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  4. Cath, I am so pleased that you enjoyed this collection. It’s always a little worrying when someone acquires a book on the strength of my waxing lyrical and especially when it’s someone with experience and expertise in the field such as yourself! I enjoyed So Many Chances too, although it was not my favourite. As for the earthworms, I do take your point. It worked for me because I rarely see what’s being described literally; the image translates to an emotion.

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    • I’ve loved all of this collection, Sandra, and can only say again, Thank You. I know what you mean about recommendations, reading is such an individual experience. And one of the reasons I picked out So Many Chances was that he managed to make me empathise with the idea of fishing. As a child, I went several times with my brother and loathed it. Though that was what the boy in the story called ‘bait fishing’!

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  5. Your wonderful post serves as a timely reminder to return to the treasure of short stories again as I slowly return to the world of blogging following a summer of gathering and harvesting poems for my second collection. Although I haven’t read this collection (but now intrigued!) or Atwood’s but loved many of Ali Smith’s and others.

    Hmm, it’s so easy to forget the joy of short stories in a world where the novel dominates! Perhaps I’m more of a lover of this genre than I realise. Thanks for reminding me! Rich autumn blessings, Deborah.

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  6. I enjoy reading short stories, have read mostly in the Hindi language though; it is like someone narrating an anecdote.
    The Shell Collector seems like an interesting one; I loved the title and I loved your post Cath, as always.
    Thank you! πŸ™‚

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  7. I was interested to read your thoughts on the delights of short stories. My whole life has been an appreciation of short stories. In fact many a bedside table has held one over the years. I find them so inviting as you can often tell yourself, “I haven’t got time”, when it comes to treading. This trend is even more appropriate in our modern, busy lives. The beauty of a short story is that it promotes reading for the reason I’ve just stated. It’s so much easier to read less when you know there are hundreds of pages ahead of you. Seeing you’re only fifty pages from completion of the latest piece tends to drive you forward. My own blog is a mixture of all genres, fact, fiction (long and short), poetry (not so much) and real life observations (quite a lot). I’m actually a frustrated, short story writer. “Frustrated” because my brain has a tendency to keep turning my offerings into full length novels (well, it would if I allowed them to come to fruition). Enough about me, thanks for sharing your talents and I’ll dip in again shortly to see what’s new. I love your style, by the way……very readable.

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  8. I did not knew there are people who do not like short stories. I am not one of them. πŸ˜€
    Short stories have there own charm and they finish fast. πŸ˜‰ Like the way you described Dorotea’s story. Some stories do become obvious but are hard to skip.

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