Amy Hempel has a masterful command of the English language. Reading (and re-reading) this collection is endlessly entertaining, and for aspiring writers it’s a kind of master class. The longest piece is “Tumble Home,” and Hempel’s narrator is illuminated more fully with every line, lines like these about her mother:
Two slips of the tongue: I said to Chatty, “In all important ways, I believe I am her evil,” instead of “equal.” And when Chatty voiced an opinion, I added, “I feel the shame.”
And on Chatty:
I have made friends with the Southerner. Chatty is not one of those ironic nicknames as when a fat person is known as “Tiny.” Chatty says that when she was a girl away at school and the holidays were coming, her mother would ask if she was bringing home any listeners.
And on interior design:
We can personalize the rooms to the extent we care to. Chatty hung curtains of crocheted lace, but I like a room that doesn’t give a person away.
I’m a sucker for a good line, but “Tumble Home” is rife with gems like these. To mine the best bits it would be easier to transpose the whole thing here.
I told him about the way [dogs] get to know you. Not the way people do, the way people flatter you by wanting to know every last thing about you, only it isn’t a compliment, it is just efficient, a person getting more quickly to the end of you. Correction- dogs do want to know every last thing about you. They take in the smell of you, they know from the next room, asleep, when a mood settles over you. The difference is there’s not an end to it.
– “The Dog of Marriage”
That’s one of my favorites even though I’m a cat person. Personally, it inspires me to find my wife endlessly fascinating. Professionally, I admire how it sums up this woman’s dissatisfaction with her marriage better than ten pages of dialog, or soul-searching inner monologue, and it gives the reader her world view in the bargain. Plus it’s just fun to read.
This line haunts me, probably more than any I’ve read.
I was aware of the point at which a compliment becomes a trap, because you are expected to keep doing the thing you are praised for; resentment will follow when you stop. – “Offertory”
It applies to lovers, to spouses, to employers. I was never aware of the point at which a compliment becomes a trap until Amy Hempel pointed it out to me; now I can’t go back.
The truth is, the beach is like excess weight. If we lost it, what would the excuse be then?
-“Tonight is a Favor to Holly”
I include that because its fun, but also because it shows Hempel’s gift for titles.
And I’ll end this love letter to Hempel’s work with my all-time favorite quote of hers. When I worked the sales floor on a regular basis, I used it read it to potential customers to convince them to buy the book. It never failed.
Sister has her eye on the fellow from the post office. When you buy a sheet of stamps from him, he rubs the gooey side of the sheet against his hair. He says that the oil from human hair will keep the stamps from sticking to one another in your purse. It’s a handy tip, and a gesture you want to remember when you go to lick a stamp.