I have been very lucky. In general that is true, but in reading this summer, it has been exceptionally so. I have read some of the best books I have read in a long, long time this summer. Some that will definitely make my top books list for 2021 and a few that may hold a spot on my favourite books of all time list. After a few months when reading felt really challenging, August has been a dream month, but we’ll save all that for next week when the month comes to a close.
We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin
We Want What We Want is a collection of short stories by Alex Ohlin. Before reading it, my only exposure to Ohlin’s work had been the novel Dual Citizens, which I loved and which was short-listed for the 2019 Giller Prize. Her 2012 novel, Inside, which I bought, but have yet to read, was also short-listed for the Giller.
More than stories, the thirteen pieces contained within We Want What We Want, are fragile, private slices of life. In some cases, the events span several years, but each still speaks to the significance of a tiny moment, one small action, and the longstanding impact that even the most minor interaction can have.
In the mordantly funny “Money, Geography, Youth,” Vanessa arrives home from a gap year volunteering in Ghana to find that her father is engaged to her childhood best friend. Unable to reconcile the girl she went to dances with in the eighth grade and the woman in her father’s bed, Vanessa turns to a different old friendship for her own, unique diversion. In the subversive “The Brooks Brothers Guru,” Amanda drives to upstate New York to rescue her gawky cousin from a cult, only to discover clean-cut, well-dressed men living in a beautiful home, discussing the classics and drinking cocktails, moving her to wonder what freedoms she might be willing to trade for a life of such elegant comfort. And in “The Universal Particular,” Tamar welcomes her husband’s young stepcousin into her home, only to find her cool suburban life knocked askew in ways she cannot quite understand.
Populated with imperfect families, burned potential, and inescapable old flames, the stories in We Want What We Want are, each one, diamond-sharp — sparkling with pain, humour, and beauty.
Ohlin’s greatest strength is in her ability to write relationships. I don’t mean the simple, outward descriptions of how one person is connected to another, but the sharp edges and deep tensions that exist within those connections for sometimes inexplicable (and sometimes very explicable) reasons.
My favourites were Risk Management, a story about the barriers we nurture between ourselves and others and how attachments will find their own ways to overcome them, Something About Love which chronicles the expansion that a blended family requires and the twists and turns that can result, and Nights Back Then, detailing a sequence of decisions made with the heart and consequences that are suffered as a result of them.
Thank you to Netgalley and House of Anansi Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my review. We Want What We Want is now available from your favourite local book seller.