Book: Sidewalk Dancing by Letitia Moffitt
Rating: 4.75/5 expensive bottles of perfume
Recommended if you like: non-linear and non-traditional storytelling, characters that seem so real you’re almost sure you know them, stories of people navigating multiple cultures
First line: “She started thinking about knives one evening, the first time he came in and ordered the chops.”
Published: Atticus Books, 2013, 155 pages
A copy of this book was provided by Atticus Books
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the subtitle, “a novel in stories,” or what would differentiate it from a story collection, but like everything else in this book the words both exactly describe, and barely hint at what is to follow.
Sidewalk Dancing epitomizes “less is more,” each story saying just enough before moving on to the next. Together they show the life of Miranda McGee, half Chinese and raised in Hawaii. But of course her story is also her parents’ story, and their story is part of hers. As the snippets draw together we see the whole picture, like a pointillist painting where you can only see the image when you take a few steps back.
The chapters jump back and forth both in time and point of view and while this could seem disjointed, it does not. Rather it feels like that first trip you take home with someone to meet their family. You sit in the living room and your friend/significant other/college roommate tells you a little about the people in the room and then everyone starts pitching in stories about the person you came with, about her parents, about their parents, about the family’s journey to where they are today. It’s how we get to know people, really, in the stories they tell us and the unspoken things those stories reveal.
The characters in Sidewalk Dancing are revealed in anecdotes like a story about Miranda’s mother, Grace, buying a sign that said “Beware of Dog” and setting a bowl of dog food outside their garage to deter potential burglars. Or Miranda’s father, George, building a house and later a boat that both eventually get finished but never really work properly. Equally they are revealed in Miranda’s commentary of her family, like her observations of Grace’s view of the word “sorry”:
“To her, it was meaningless to say ‘I’m sorry.’ People who said it often, like my father, still couldn’t change what happened to provoke their apology. Others who never said it, like my grandmother, wouldn’t change either. What difference did it make?”
Miranda describes leaving Hawaii with a rebellious yet matter-of-fact quality, not really wanting to be someone different, just wanting to be not her. Not be the half-Chinese girl who is never quite enough American, nor quite enough Chinese to satisfy anyone around her. Not be the child of unhappy parents who stayed married for far too long. Not be the daughter of an immigrant mother who seemed to hold her back from normalcy (though, not nearly as much as she thought.) Moffitt brilliantly describes emotions we can all relate to while detailing a cultural experience that white readers have never known.
In a story about taking on a new insurance client and then later discovering he’d died of AIDS, Miranda gives us the quarter life crisis in a box. Moffitt encapsulates the confusion, the chaos, the “OMG what does it all MEAN”-ness of those years with Miranda’s emotional reaction to the news that a man she had met and talked to and filled out forms for had died of a terrible disease.
We see Miranda’s boyfriend, Tyler, become the very tourist he had once despised, travelling to Ireland to hunt down his family’s roots. And Miranda says everything about culture, about belonging, and about being an outsider when she says:
“It would seem, wouldn’t it, that he has more in common with me, in our shared lives, than any of the people in this country. But perhaps all two people of the same group have to do, whatever that group may be, is say a few words, or hum a melody, or even simply gesture, and there would be a shared and knowing moment of silence between them, a complicit nod, eyes locked in mutual understanding. And the outsider, in this case me, would only know that she’d never understand what that meant.”
Sidewalk Dancing is a wonderful glimpse into a life that is both refreshingly different and utterly familiar.