Review: Shakespeare's Kitchen by Lore Segal
Author: Lore Segal
Genre: Short Story, Literary Fiction
Release Date: April 2, 2007
Publisher: The New Press
Source: Personal Copy
I was first introduced to Lore Segal's work through the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. Jennifer Egan read one of the stories from this collection called "The Reverse Bug," and I was pleasantly surprised at how much the story affected me. Days later I found myself still contemplating and mulling over the complex tale. When I came across the full collection in a used bookstore, I decided to give the rest of her work a shot. I've been trying to read different types of fiction lately, and since Shakespeare's Kitchen was a finalist for the Pulitzer I thought this would be a good choice.
A big complaint I had with this collection was that it didn't feel like a gathering of short stories but more like an underdeveloped novel, with the same characters as the focus and a somewhat chronological ordering. Most of these interconnected stories focus on Ilka Weisz, a former Viennese refugee who takes a job at a New England think tank, the Concordance Institute. Here, she meets the institutes's director Leslie Shakespeare and his wife Eliza, along with the many colleagues and administrative employees with whom she will be working. Segal's strong writing and attention to detail brilliantly captures the arrogance, egotism, and sense of detachment that seem so commonplace in academia. Unfortunately, I think this also turned the characters into stereotypical, one-dimensional representations. Other than a few intellectual conversations that admittedly went a little over my head, the dialogue was excellent. That, plus the fallible characters, is what convinced me to keep going, holding my interest for the entire work, almost like a train wreck.
Segal did do terrific job of capturing the often uncomfortable and awkward situations inherent in being an outsider. Being more reserved myself, I could relate to a lot of Ilka's problems in social situations and was emotionally affected by her embarrassments. These stories address one of the most basic of human fears, the fear of rejection. The nagging questions that come about when trying to make friends (the constant 'Do they like me?' or 'What did I do wrong?') bombard the characters Segal has created. One character in particular, Una, is ostracized by her social group, and spends much of her story trying to figure out just what she has done to warrant such a drastic action from her friends. A major theme within the collection is the cruelty that is exhibited among social circles, from a night class to a faculty meeting to the genocide at Dachau.
Unless you are a big fan of Segal's previous work or are an avid short story reader, I don't think I would recommend this collection. The one story that influenced my decision to buy this book, "The Reverse Bug," felt almost of place. While the beginning stories offered an interesting insight into the 'melanchology of the outsider,' the last third of the book veered into a completely different direction and offered a turn of events that I didn't care for at all. Since Segal's characters felt too much like caricatures, I was hard pressed to really care about any of them. However, I do recommend listening to Egan's reading of "The Reverse Bug" if you are looking for a thought-provoking and fascinating short story.
-"The Reverse Bug" read by Jennifer Egan - New Yorker Fiction podcast