This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky

Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region

Longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010

When this book was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize it immediately caught my attention; a debut collection of stories published by Thomas Allen, the same folks who brought us A Perfect Night to go to China and The Polished HoeThis Cake is for the Party was definitely a worthy contender. Many of the ten stories are very memorable; they can range from heartwarming to haunting. Is this a perfect book? no, absolutely not; there are some serious flaws with it, but, that being said, I did really enjoy most of the stories and I do believe that Sarah Selecky, along with her Giller co-nominee Alexander MacLeod, is going to be one of the major voices of the new wave of Canadian short fiction.

These stories took me back to the writing style of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant early in their careers. Each story is very episodic, representing a snapshot in a character’s life. A lot of the pieces have very little forward momentum; the conflicts and resolutions in these stories come from average people dealing with whatever fate has been dealt to them. What I really liked about this book is that each story contains some of the mundane and somewhat more dull details that many writers simply ignore; Selecky understands how important these small details are in life’s daily battles. This book looks at relationships, marriage, and family dynamics in great depth. Issues of infidelity, parenthood, the decision to have children, depression and mental illness and it’s effect on a relationship, and friendship, among others, are examined through a microscopic lens.

This book is not without it’s flaws. The first two stories in the book reeked of what I call “MFA disorder”. These stories, while technically perfect, lacked heart and passion. They had the overwritten pretension of someone taking a first year creative writing course. This has become a trend in American literature and has been celebrated by many critics south of the border. Writers like Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon are perfect examples. Had this not been the only book I brought along with me on my Christmas vacation travels I would have likely put it down after the second story. While the collection doesn’t completely shake the MFA feeling, as the book progressed the stories got better, with the final one, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”, being my hands-down favorite.

Collections of short fiction are published less and less. I think this is more so a business issue rather than a talent issue. Publishing a book is very expensive and companies want to make sure they make money on their product; the fact is short stories do not sell well. This has always amazed me. I think that stories are one of the greatest literary genres in existence today. A 20 page story examines the human condition in such a unique way; it combines the brevity of poetry with the thematic complexities of a novel. This Cake is for the Party is a great debut collection and I will not be surprised if we hear the name Sarah Selecky attached to many other notable books.

4 responses

  1. Customers keep telling me what a great book this is, and one customer in particular has convinced me. But your MFA comment disappoints me; I wish it wasn’t so. Still, I’ll try it, and see what I think!

    1. I’ve talked to some people who love this book and some who hate it. Just like any book I think it just comes down to your personal taste. It is worth reading though.

  2. I’m especially interested in the topics of the stories.

  3. […] For a second opinion, read Steph’s review from Bella’s Bookshelves here. (it’s a good one!!) And a review from the Canadian Book Review here. […]

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