One thought kept running through my head as I read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s debut short story collection: If Jennifer Egan spent a day birding with Jonathan Franzen, this is the book she’d come up with. Because seriously, if you’re an animal-loving Jennifer Egan fan, this book has your name all over it. The twelve stories that comprise Birds of a Lesser Paradise capture fragile, imperfect people living in an animal world. The collection is melancholy in tone and most of the stories are about people wanting to reclaim a part of their past, but almost all of them are tinged with hope.
The book begins with “Housewifely Arts,” which beautifully sets the tone for the rest of the collection. It’s main protagonist is a woman reflecting her tense last few years with her mother. She’s taking a road trip with her son in hopes of finding her mother’s African gray parrot, who can perfectly mimic her mother’s voice. Now a mother herself, the woman is starting to understand her mother and longs to retrieve a tangible lost piece of her.
One of the more memorable stories is “Saving Face,” about a once-beautiful veterinarian named Lila whose face was mauled by a dog; her face is now partially disfigured. As someone who could always get by on her looks, she now felt that she had to get by on her intelligence and her actions, and the repercussions were affecting other areas of her life. Everything about her is immobilized by this new self-consciousness.