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.
My favorite story in the collection is “Yesterday’s Whales,” about a woman and her longtime boyfriend; both are activists for the voluntary human extinction movement. The woman’s beliefs are put to the test when she finds out she is pregnant; since her boyfriend is the East Coast’s “face” of the movement, he naturally pressures her to have an abortion, warning her of the doom that future generations face because of the irreparable damage people have done to the Earth. I love the internal debates the woman has with herself.
There are other standouts: the title story is about a woman who returns home to run birding tours in the North Carolina swamps with her father; on one such trip, they set off with a customer in search of a bird that has been believed to be extinct for decades. “Another Story She Won’t Believe” features a recovering alcoholic who has lost everything and feels she can’t do anything right; she now volunteers at a lemur rescue center, and a bad snowstorm will once again put her self worth to the test. In “Every Vein a Tooth,” a woman struggles to choose between a relationship with the man she loves and her life as an animal rescuer; she compulsively brings home every damaged animal she can, and her boyfriend can’t take it anymore.
Most short story collections are uneven and feature a few stories that the collection could have done without. Birds of a Lesser Paradise has a couple of forgettable stories, but none of those stories detract from the book. This is actually one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read in a while, and can’t wait to read whatever this author produces in the future.
These were some of my favorite passages in the book.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise was released on March 6, 2012 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.