With this provocative debut, Tan proves herself a sharp chronicler of contemporary romance. Her stories feature setups including a love triangle consisting of twin brothers and a woman with brain damage (“DD-MM-YY”) and a movie star’s tryst with her transgender stunt double (“Candy Glass”). In the brief, impressionistic “Ghosts,” an unfaithful husband suppresses his kinks to save his marriage. “Would Like to Meet” finds Amber, a museum curator with bone cancer, attempting to find a woman for her husband to remarry after she dies. The narrator, having answered the couple’s ad, is immediately receptive (“They were trying to pull the future into the present, to make a place for Amber in it. I thought it was a beautiful idea”) even as the husband has second thoughts. These stories are attention-grabbing, though sometimes hamstrung by Tan’s inclination to default to stock imagery to evoke her characters’ passion for each other (“I drifted in your wake, feeling the tug of your slipstream. I watched your cigarette hand in the wind, smoke threading your fingers”). The collection’s best moments are its small ones, when Tan focuses on the maintenance of a relationship rather than its alluring arrival. Tan has a powerful ability to push the characters’ relationships to their emotional limits, and she is never better than when those limits break. (Oct.)
ELLE, “The 28 Best Books to Read in Fall 2018” Library Journal, “Top Short Fiction For Fall” “A brilliant and daring collection.” —The New York Times “With this provocative debut, Tan proves herself a sharp chronicler of contemporary romance.” —Publishers Weekly “There’s plenty of darkness and a sprinkling of magic, and these strange, flinty, cigarette-stained narratives speed by, offering lots of surface tension and compelling deeper passions.” —The Guardian “Visceral and demanding; an unsettling collection that knocks you off balance.” —Kirkus “This book turns your senses so sharply it’s hard not to feel thankful for it—how is it possible to have missed these moments before?” —Los Angeles Review of Books “A story collection designed to unsettle in the most incisive, breathtaking way, May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break is a razor-sharp example of the strange behaviors of human beings.” —Nylon “Entertaining reading from a writer worth watching.” —Library Journal “Exhilarating.” —Literary Hub “Tan is a cinematic writer in the same way some directors are literary—think David Lynch at his most Guignol.” —Times Literary Supplement “The thirteen stories found in these two books are a fantastic introduction to a writer in the process of teaching us new ways of reading.” —Vol. 1 Brooklyn “The desires sparking in Things to Make and Break spark again and again—as individual as heartbeats, as intertangled as cigarette smoke around fingers.” —Arkansas International “ Things to Make and Break is omnisexual, and it’s mind-blowingly good.” —PANK “ Things to Make and Break is at once about everyone and no one in particular.” —The Harvard Crimson
“Tan leaves readers feeling liberated from conventional storytelling.” —Bust
“One of the most disarming works of fiction you’re likely to encounter anytime soon.” —The Star Tribune “These stories feel like they were written with a lit cigarette on the night wind. Tan has an imagination like a haunted carousel and each story here is like a ghost that wants only to talk to you. This is one of those debuts to remember, a name that bookmarks itself in your mind after the first story, or should—attention, as we say, must be paid. May-Lan Tan is here.” —Alexander Chee
Everyone in Tan's world is broken and searching for connection, though in the 11 haunting stories collected here, the results are rarely what they bargained for.With the eerie precision of oversaturated snapshots, each of Tan's stories captures a different moment of desperation—some otherworldly, others deceptively mundane. In "Legendary," which opens the collection, a woman studies her boyfriend's ex-girlfriends, searching for herself in their strange, unspoken sisterhood. In "Date Night," a little girl in Hong Kong spends the night with her Indonesian nanny—new to the country, thousands of miles from her own children—while her mother is out with a date. In "New Jersey," a teenage girl feels betrayed when her best friend loses her virginity to a boy. Other stories are stranger and more violent: "Laurens" follows a boy-Lauren and a girl-Lauren living brutally parallel lives: "They know how to skin things. Their fathers are hunters. The summer their mothers suicided, the Laurens went to SeaWorld San Diego, where they occupied the same quadrant of the bleachers during the Shamu show." Both their stories end with blood. In the viciously sad "DD-MM-YY," twin brothers have been competing for the same girl for years, though her own memories of this are shaky: She's brain-injured from a car accident. Formatted like a movie script and taking up nearly 50 pages, "Candy Glass" is perhaps the most quietly affecting story in the collection, and the loneliest, about a Hollywood actress who falls for her stunt double. "Maybe funhouse mirrors would be scarier if, instead of making you look bad, they made you look better," the actress observes, watching her doppelgänger. There is a gentle hesitancy to their relationship; in the end, the stunt double—a trans woman—will leave her, choosing to start fresh. "I'll stick a flag in my lawn and go to church every Sunday, and marry a man. I'll be part of the superstructure," she says. "I don't know how useful love is, in the long run."Visceral and demanding; an unsettling collection that knocks you off balance.
Debut A Berlin-based author with a background in fine arts, Tan looks at relationships with a satisfying honesty, neither too sentimental nor too darkly cynical; characters move their way through life and make their peace with it. The writing is mostly bright, loose-limbed, and engaging even though the subjects aren't always sparkly. A mother's date night out brings forth a daughter's wistfulness, a boy whose mother committed suicide believes he hears her voice when he and his father have a car accident, two sisters each get pregnant, but only one has the baby. In the emblematic opening story, a young woman becomes obsessed with her caddish boyfriend's former girlfriend, Holly—the only one in a long string of flings whose name he mentions—and secretly seeks her out. When she moves out after their breakup, she realizes, "I'm one of them now, a blade in the guts of some future girl." There's something vulnerable yet finally tough about this character, as there is about the protagonist of "Candy Glass," who's starring in a romcom-thriller that "arrive[s] in Miami a month behind schedule and four million over budget" and becomes fascinated by her stunt double. VERDICT Entertaining reading from a writer worth watching.