What You've Been Missing
Janet Desaulniers Makes A Case For What She’s Been Finding
by Heather Dewar

Chicago writer Janet Desaulniers’ first book, What You’ve Been Missing, delivers a collection of short stories that are heartbreaking but fresh. Published last fall, Desaulnier's book has garnered critical accolades, including the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Sentences like, “She stirs her coffee lightly, and then, resting her chin on one hand, she looks at me with a face so womanly and frank that I am embarrassed and filled with hope” and “Yearning filled my chest like a bright light. I’ve met my loss, I thought” demonstrate her attention to language as well as her acuity in the face of life’s contradictions. She finds humor alongside sadness alongside beauty. Desaulniers’ writing reads fast and feels intentionally different. When her style works, it creates sentences that catch readers by surprise and make them stop and feel. When it doesn’t, it’s just distracting.

Desaulniers’ dialogue follows a similar pattern. At the beginning of “The Next Day,” a woman tells her husband about a childhood incident in which she discovered that her parakeet had died: “I didn’t even want to look. I just stood in the doorway and tried to stare past its cage and right into the next day.” In “Real Love” a woman speaks to her ex-husband before she moves away to Arizona: “I need some time alone, a new geography, one with peaks to stun me, loosen whatever I’ve been clutching.” Dialogue like this doesn’t feel real—it’s too contemplative and introspective, too poetic for the everyday talk that would likely come naturally from these characters’ mouths. More than anything, it leaves the impression that the speaker is more interested in listening to him- or herself talk than in connecting with anyone else.

Whether speaking or not, Desaulniers’ characters are decidedly self-conscious, at times frighteningly self-absorbed. When Joan in “The Next Day” delivers to her husband one of the more terrifying lines in the book, “Passion for somebody who isn’t yourself isn’t very, I don’t know, useful” the reader can’t help but wonder why the husband doesn’t make for the hills before things get worse (which they do).

Oftentimes the meaning behind a piece of writing, the meaning behind a writer, comes at a story’s end. Do the characters end up married, heartbroken, asleep, at the edge of epiphany? In the case of Desaulniers’ stories, the characters end up fairly close to where they started and we get the sense that they will continue leading life as they have been. They are snapshots rather than solutions, propelled by the haunting implications that help is not always possible and life’s beauty and meaning can come when we just have to sit back and deal. In such powerful and grounded stories as “After Rosa Parks” and “Never, Ever, Always”, her characters step outside themselves and seem to make extraordinary efforts. When they do, her stories are most likable and Desaulniers’ considerable talents shine most brightly. It is also in these moments that her stories achieve what good fiction does best; they help us see ourselves more clearly and reinvigorate our connection with the people who give our lives meaning.

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