Look How Happy I’m Making You is a collection of short stories by Ann Arbor writer Polly Rosenwaike, the fiction editor at Michigan Quarterly Review. Pregnancy is the guiding motif for these stories which proves to be a dynamic narrative element. Like a baby’s foot on the walls of a womb, we feel conception pressuring and reforming the protagonists’ relationships with themselves and the world around them. With an agile style, Rosenwaike maneuvers us through stories that teach us the power of compassion in the face of uncertainty.
The Same Story is Always Different
Each short story in Look How Happy I’m Making You depicts, one way or another, motherhood, yet each remains wholly distinct. Rosenwaike stitches a new world in each chapter. Sometimes a birth is imminent, sometimes an imminent birth ends suddenly, sometimes a desired conception never comes. Sometimes a baby long born bears witness to unresolved doubts in a growing family. Look How Happy I’m Making You leans in close, and like Greg, a love interest in the second story, “makes excellent eye contact,” as the characters reconcile with their desires and expectations about the nature of family.
The True Size of Small Things
While engaging the complexities of pregnancy–a topic that literally bears the weight of human history–Rosenwaike revels in the magnitude of small moments. A character makes a one word confession while watching late night TV that ends a relationship and sends her future into uncertainty. Another finds a years awaited triumph after waking up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Yet another finds a complicated commiseration in a kid whose cat ran away. By showing us people in the practice of living, in the routines of grief or bliss, Rosenwaike clearly evokes the human spirit.
Rosenwaike’s attention to the small things extends to her use of language. Her narration is utilitarian and lucid, and when she hops into the minds of her characters, it’s visceral and vivid. Often omniscient, she darts between explication of scene and expression of emotion, and the contrasted styles mimic a lived experience. Scenes draped in panic and worry end abruptly as characters stop to check their email. In “White Carnations,” scenes of friends getting drinks and dinner bob on the surface of an intimate telling of an accidental pregnancy. It’s as if a separate inner life threatens to capsize a life that struggles to float on uninterrupted, mirroring the experience of the reluctant mother in the story.
As flawed as the characters are in Look How Happy I’m Making You, they’re never, as so often mothers are, derided for their mistakes. That’s not to say that Rosenwaike treats her characters with kid gloves. In fact, so complicated are the characters’ relationships with the world around them that there is hardly ever a correct path for them to take. Second guessing previously unquestioned convictions, friends and families have contradictory thoughts of their own. All the while, the burden of motherhood and all of its expectations makes each decision feel urgent and potentially life changing. The reader, too, is disarmed by these pressures, unable to sort out for themselves the right way forward.
Eventually, in every story, whether a character is forced to reckon with a choice or simply press on, the protagonist reaches a transcendent moment of compassion. In these moments, the character, severed from the tradition of motherhood by their circumstance, finds a means to fulfill that tradition through compassion. Self compassion allows the character to make a tentative peace with problems that are never truly solved, and compassion for others allows the characters to undergo a process of forgiveness of each other. Dylan Thomas wrote that “dark is a way and light is a place,” but Polly Rosenwaike shows us the opposite. The light of compassion guides us through periods of darkness, and offers hope, even as most problems go unresolved.