My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro

The sparrow in the title of this anthology was one prong of an inconvenient love triangle described by the Latin poet Gaius Catullus in 84 B.C. The pet bird belonged to a girl who was loved by the poet and, unfortunately, her own husband. The sparrow takes the brunt of the lover’s displaced jealousy, until it dies, taking his girl’s happiness along with it. According to author Jeffrey Eugenides, all love stories since have followed the same template: “there is either a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.” Frequently in these 26 stories, that sparrow takes the form of an inconvenient spouse, though it becomes apparent that the sparrow’s presence is what makes the song so sweet. William Trevor provides a glimpse of the ordinary happiness that eludes a pair of lovers who take the unorthodox path of making a workaday love out of an illicit one, while Lorrie Moore gives a welcome take from the perspective of the mistress herself (“When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet”). The selection is well packed with classics — stories from Faulkner, Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov, and Carver among them — which speaks for Eugenides’ comprehensive scope but may feel remedial to some. Contemporary tales by Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, and others pack more surprise. Though all the entries illuminate the amatory state, none are much of an advertisement for its wholesome pleasures. Warns Eugenides: “Read these love stories in the safety of your own twin bed. Let everyone else suffer.” –