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Single, Carefree, Mellow

2015 March 19

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I picked up Katherine Heiny’s debut story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow because Lena Dunham tweeted that it was hilarious and amazing and wonderful. And also because it has a beautiful cover and also because there was a copy up for grabs in my office’s ad hoc “little free library” (really just a pile of books in the corner of the office kitchen).

The title captivated me. To be single, carefree, and mellow–that was, on some level, what I’ve been looking for for the last year. I love reading about relationships–their beginnings and ends and aftermaths and steady, peaceful middles–but a collection of stories about single, independent women was appealing to me. It seemed fresh, different, even irreverent.

So much contemporary short fiction is dark and cynical, especially with regards to love. I was disappointed to find that this collection is no different. In fact, nearly every story involves infidelity. No, doesn’t involve–revolves around. Infidelity is the central conceit here–but Heiny does something interesting with it: instead of the common trope of the story told from the jilted woman’s point of view, many of the heroines in this collection are either the “other woman” or the ones cheating on their partners. In “The Dive Bar,” a young woman meets her lover’s wife for an uncomfortable drink following the husband’s announcement that he’s leaving his wife for his mistress. In “Blue Heron Bridge,” a married woman begins a frenzied affair with a neighbor, only to discover that he’s also been sleeping with a neighbor whom she dislikes. The neighbor, of course, is also married. In “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid,” the typical duties of a bridesmaid are expanded to include pretending to date the bride’s lover so he can attend the wedding. I found that one particularly unsettling and ridiculous.

One character, Maya, appears in several stories, including “Single, Carefree, Mellow.” She is married to a sweet, devoted man but she finds herself seeking comfort and validation outside of her marriage–obsessing over it, in fact. She thinks about what it would be like to leave her marriage, to be single, carefree, and mellow. This sentiment makes sense to me, but it bothered me that nearly EVERY story in the collection revolved around not only the concept of infidelity, but around women in relationships. Not one central character in these stories was single, in fact.

What is our aversion to single women and the notion that they can be happy, independent, and successful individuals? I read an essay by Summer Brennan that really resonated with me where she talks about the notion of the “spinster”–that dreaded fate of being a single woman of a certain age, alone and unloved and slowly going crazy. She references that pivotal scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey finds out what would have happened to his wife, Mary, had he never been born.

The library! Glasses! No makeup! THE HORROR!

We’re taught from a young age that our value as humans is decreased if we don’t have anyone to love us in a romantic way. Most of us internalize this lesson in ways that can be harmful and can lead to unhealthy and unhappy relationships. We’d rather be with a person that doesn’t deserve us than be alone. When did being alone become the worst fate imaginable?

That is not to say that I want to be single for the rest of my life. But I would like to see more examples of women who are single AND fulfilled AND successful AND not obsessed with having a partner in literature. Is that too much to ask from a collection titled Single, Carefree, Mellow?

3 Responses Post a comment
  1. Nancy permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Thanks for this post! I agree that so many themes in literature, film, TV and other media focus on romantic love as the ultimate fulfillment and portray single women as somehow lacking. The constancy of these themes is just plain tiring after a while…and, as you say, detrimental to our psyche as humans who happen to be female :) I’m not sure what the answer is…but it’s good to acknowledge the problem.

  2. Raquel permalink
    March 23, 2015

    AMEN. I feel like no matter what choice women make, we’ll always, always get backlash for it. I hate this idea that a single, happy, fulfilled woman is somehow a unicorn. This book fails the Bechdel test. As does so much in the world of art (films, literature, TV).

  3. March 26, 2015

    I love It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s one of my all time favorite movies. But I HATE that scene where they show Donna Reed if she hadn’t met George so much that I’ll usually leave the room when it’s on. It makes me cringe every single time.

    I have so many thoughts about this post and the questions you poised. It’s almost as if people can’t “handle” a single woman who is carefree, mellow, and perhaps happy?? Sure, if the right person comes along, great…but that doesn’t mean we stop living our lives and enjoying our days in the meantime.

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