by Pam Houston
W.W. Norton and Company, January 1992
I'll admit it, I picked this up based on the title. I mean, what a great title, right? Unlike most books chosen based on title, though, this one paid off. It's a great book of short stories, mostly centered around women's relationships with men who are unsuitable for one reason or another, generally due to being one kind or another of "cowboy."
Which I realize doesn't make it sound very good. In fact, it makes it sound pretty fucking trite. But it's mostly not.
Houston's female characters are strong and self-aware, even as they become enmeshed in or unraveled from men who are not good enough for them. They are thinking, feeling, acting women, and are fun to read about for that reason. She writes about them with empathy, but without pity, and although the strands of autobiography are certainly there, they don't seem to cloud things too much.
The best of the stories, though, are the ones that don't center around weak relationships, but around strong ones. The first of these, "For Bo," is a fairly simple tale of a day in the life of a woman, her husband, her dogs, and her pain-in-the-ass mother. It had me laughing hysterically, and it also had an underlying romantic feeling--real romance, not the flowers and lace kind--that left me feeling lighter for having read it. The second, the book's last story, "In My Next Life," is the heartbreaking tale of a friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer, and of its unrealized potential. Though the story is very sad, Houston's decision to have it end a book of stories mostly about unsatisfactory relationships between women and men is telling--I love the implication that, as Abby says in the story, there is so much more to life than romantic relationships with men.
Other reviews of this book have criticized the similarities between Houston's female characters (almost all Easterners in love with the West, almost all women in love with untameable men, blah blah blah), and those criticisms are valid. However, given the shortness of the stories and the differing conclusions (or un-conclusions) the women in them come to, I was not bored by this similarity. I felt it gave the book an overarching narrative, something that tied all of the short pieces together, and I liked that.
I'll admit that cowboys are my weakness, too. Not in the sense of specific men, as is the case in most of Houston's stories, but in the sense of my having a natural predilection towards anything "
"Western." I get a pass on it, because I'm actually from the West, but it may have biased me in favor of this book. Be that as it may, though, I enjoyed the stories a lot and would recommend them.