Book Reviews · 02/01/2021

The Invention of Love by Sara Schaff

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Split Lip Press, 2020

The Invention of Love, Sara Schaff’s second short story collection, is a meditation on the messiness of love, art, and belonging in women’s lives. Schaff is fascinated by the journey of female identity — its origin, development, and influences. Eager to find out where they fit and how they’ll flourish, the women in Schaff’s collection are observers by nature, reflective and discerning. Yet they are also actively exploring how to make the most of the spaces they inhabit. While managing reputations, family legacies, and past and present loves, they also reckon poignantly with their art.

The early, and arguably the best, story in the collection, the titular “The Invention of Love,” follows an uncertain student who uses a gifted peer’s tragedy to come into her own artistically. She craves the hot-blooded compulsion that she believes accompanies true talent, a carnality Schaff equates to love and sex. As the narrator uncovers her desire to be an artist, she also discovers her desire to have her art recognized by others. It’s an awakening of sorts. “I felt that little thrill of discovery again,” she realizes as she begins to hone her voice, “this time something a little darker, needier — the desire to invent, to be looked at without entirely being seen.”

This thrilling thirst for artistry is a common theme in the collection, and something that Schaff handles with great tenderness. Her characters are hungry to experience soul-shaking intimacy through the conduits of art, literature, conversation, and creation. In “The All Clear,” a woman pores over her old drawings during a tornado warning, comparing herself to “a sad drunk who sits at the bar until the wee hours of the morning, slumping into her bottomless bourbon.” Her relationship with art is dark, visceral, unsentimental; it is as fundamental to her identity as love or sex. In fact, in many of these stories, art and sex exist on the same level. In “Something Else,” a woman bluntly tells a fellow writer she’s slept with that “she found the sex more disappointing than his fiction.” In this collection, art is a more intimate and powerful force than romance, and Schaff’s writing is strongest when she explores that fact — especially when it acts as a catalyst for conflict between its female characters.

The women in The Invention of Love are particularly attuned to other women. It’s the sisters, the mothers, the mentors, and the female friends (or frenemies) who drive these narratives. In “My Husband’s Second Wife,” one of the collection’s highlights, a woman runs into a former friend turned marital usurper at the grocery store. Revisiting the events of their shared past, she obsessively compares her new life to the one this woman helped disassemble. In the narrator’s eye, Delia comes into sharp, almost fanatic focus as “the kind of woman who blended in until she didn’t blend at all.” The narrator sees Delia in her marriage, in her perception of herself, in her reading of Anna Karenina for her book club. Meanwhile, the men involved are as bland and blendable as beige paint. “Our talk tends to maintain a steady level,” the narrator notes of discussion with her kind (if flat) new husband, “while in my conversations with women there’s always a satisfying energy thrumming below the surface, one that pushes us toward each other, diminishing any separation between us.” Such electric and challenging interaction between female characters propels the most successful stories in The Invention of Love.

But what of the men? Plainly put, Schaff’s women are exponentially more interesting than their male counterparts. These creeps, cheaters, and bores are inconsequential and familiar, while the women are vividly rendered. In “West Lake,” a pregnant woman runs away from her adulterous husband, determined to have their baby alone to spite him. In “Everyone Gets It,” a female copywriter struggles to succeed in her male-dominated workplace and turns the tables on her self-aggrandizing boss. In “The End of the Workshop,” a female student turns in her arrogant creative writing professor for his predatory behavior. As readers, we easily side with these strong women in their fights against male privilege and toxic masculinity, but the conflicts sometimes lack the moral blurriness that Schaff otherwise so deftly examines. When conflicts are too starkly rendered, the men become little more than one-dimensional goads, unworthy foils for Schaff’s complex women. Schaff is strongest when she eschews the “us versus them” banality of gender politics to focus on unravelling the knottiness of female connection, identity, and art.

The Invention of Love attends to conflicts that murmur rather than shout. Schaff spotlights the pain of self-discovery as well as the joy and revelation those moments can inspire. In one of the collection’s strongest moments, the story’s narrator watches another woman admire her art: “She…ran her hand over the pencil lines, smudging them a little, but this only made me happier.” When it smudges and blurs the lines, The Invention of Love feels like it’s discovering something that’s both familiar and wholly original. And the women drawing the lines — considering them, smudging them — are all the more compelling because of it.

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Sara Schaff is the author of two story collections, The Invention of Love (Split Lip Press 2020) and Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books 2016). She teaches creative writing at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

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Brenna McPeek is a writer and editor in New York City. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in KGB Bar Lit, Drizzle Review and Thoughtful Dog.