Book Review – Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston

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It’s hard to review a short story collection. You’re not discussing and evaluating one plot, one set of characters – you’re dealing with many. How do you approach that? Which do you focus on?

I recently got to hear Bill Gaston talk about and read from Juliet Was a Surprise (Hamish Hamilton, 2014). He expressed a similar problem when it comes to choosing what to read to an audience when you’ve written a short story collection. One story doesn’t necessarily tell you what the whole book will be like. So he did something rather unorthodox. Gaston read the first paragraph of each story. (Though for one he cheated and read the first two short paragraphs.) It was a terrific way to get a taste of each story and to leave his audience wanting more.

I don’t think I can review only the first paragraph of each of these stories though. But just reading the titles will likely intrigue you. “Geriatric Arena Grope” got the biggest reaction from the crowd that day but I’m partial to “Cake’s Chicken” myself. Maybe because, to me, the characters in that story are the most intriguing. And Gaston does intriguing well. He doesn’t necessarily create characters you want to hang out with, but you wouldn’t mind meeting them at a party and then telling your friends about them. Just like I found myself telling my husband about the protagonist of “House Clowns” – who may be suffering from paranoid delusions or may be in real danger of his life. And how the beauty of the story is that Gaston doesn’t offer an answer. His short stories offer snippets. Snippets of life, of a larger story, without comment or judgement.

If you’re familiar with Gaston’s previous story collections, you likely won’t be surprised here. He continues at what he’s good at. And I continue to enjoy it.

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