Review: Debut story collection captures the way we live now

“Objects of Desire,” by Clare Sestanovich (Alfred A. Knopf)

The characters in Clare Sestanovich’s debut story collection, “Objects of Desire,” are middle- to upper-middle-class, well-educated and tightly wrapped. They’re baby boomers or their 20-something kids who haven’t quite grown up. While those with jobs in marketing or tech can afford to live in glass high-rises, the aspiring artists and writers either have lots of roommates or temporarily move back home.

In the first story, “Annunciation,” Iris, a college student, is flying home for the holidays, seated between a married couple. The woman, after returning from the bathroom, reaches across Iris’s lap and waves a positive pregnancy stick in front of her husband. They’re elated. Iris doesn’t recoil or say “Ewwww!” Instead, she politely congratulates them, then goes back to cutting her green beans with a plastic knife.

It’s a hilarious scene, a modern take on the Christian theme of annunciation, told in Sestanovich’s characteristic deadpan voice. Back at college, Iris will date a boy, graduate, find out she’s pregnant, have an abortion. Different characters — her mother, her best friend, the aunt of the former boyfriend — will express their views on sex and procreation while Iris just struggles to keep it together.

Sestanovich, an editor at The New Yorker, is an elegant writer whose stories deftly capture the foods, clothes and customs of contemporary life. Parents grapple with their daughter’s anorexia. A couple wonders if it is ethical to keep a cat in a small apartment. A woman is hired as a night nanny for a little girl who has three day nannies.

Over the 11 stories, told in a variety of different voices, we meet a large, angsty, mostly privileged cast of characters who nonetheless seem to reflect a society that’s been knocked back on its heels. For the most part, the themes are domestic, not political—polyamory, infidelity, abandonment, isolation — though one story features an up-and-coming politician.

If the younger people in these stories had been alive in the 1920s or ’30s, they might have trudged off to war. In the ’50s, hit the road. In the ’60s or ’70s, turned on and dropped out. These characters, by contrast, seem hemmed in, uptight, ambivalent about having children, uncertain about the path forward, doomed to live up to their parents’ or their own high expectations, and struggling to do the right thing and not succumb to despair.

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