A Review of Mallory Ortberg’s “The Merry Spinster”
The back-cover copy of my Advance Reader’s Copy of Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster notes that “bedtime will never be the same” — at least, not after reading this book. That’s a bold assertion to make, but this short story collection of fairy tales and children’s stories that have been updated for adults has certainly changed my world view. Taking a bit of a feminist slant, Ortberg plays with the concept of gender in this book: girls get boys’ first names (or vice-versa) and characters who are clearly boys or men are referred to as daughters. You’ll be on edge as you read these 11 stories, but not necessarily from the warped, disturbed take on classic bedtime reading. You may find yourself looking at concepts such as what makes a person male or female with a lot more fluidity after reading this original and intelligent book.
I’ll say that I wasn’t overly familiar with the tales these stories are based off of (a list of borrowed sources is listed at the back of the title), but that might be because I got more Dr. Seuss in my childhood than the Brothers Grimm. That said, one’s enjoyment of the book might be proportionate to how familiar you are with various fairy tales because a lot of the pleasure from this read will be noticing how Ortberg has been faithful to the source material, and how she (or he; it seems as though the author is now known as Daniel Mallory Ortberg though the book is credited to just Mallory) hasn’t. However, much of The Merry Spinster is enjoyable, because the book is so daring and whip-smart. Like any short story collection, there are some misfires (I didn’t get “The Wedding Party” at all), but the stories that work more than make up for the lags.
If you will allow me one indulgence, I’ll even say that a lot of Ortberg’s work reminds me a bit of some of my friend Anita Dolman’s short work. (If you haven’t picked up a copy of Dolman’s collection, Lost Enough, you should go and get a copy right now.) Both authors have a way of capturing the mundane and transforming it into something a little less ordinary — such as a talking old, run-down house in a Dolman short story and a sentient velveteen rabbit in one of Ortberg’s. The writing styles of both authors are distinct, but there’s something of a shared commonality in terms of voice — though Dolman doesn’t play with gender pronouns quite so much.
In any event, I sense you tugging on my shirt sleeve, asking to be brought back to The Merry Spinster and what works. I liked Ortberg’s updating of The Little Mermaid, which, suffice to say, is nothing like the Disney-fied version you have come to know and love. (I should also note that Ortberg additionally updates Beauty and the Beast in this collection.) In fact, the ending is one that might leave children in tears, recoiling in horror at the liberties Ortberg has taken with the original story. Or what passes for the original story. If memory serves correctly, stories such as Little Red Riding Hood end with the heroine getting eaten by a wolf — definitely not child friendly! — so, in turning these tales on their heads, Ortberg is, perhaps, taking the stories back to their subversive origins.
As much as these stories tend to be dark, Ortberg does show a flair for wit — so you’ll be laughing as much as you might be burying your eyes in your hands. I loved the Wind in the Willows update which sees Toad getting abused by his animal friends, even though the yarn does end on a rather incomplete note. “The Six Boy-Coffins” takes a hilarious turn at the end, one that is decidedly feminist in nature. (I got the feeling from reading this book that I needed to have taken at least one Women’s Studies course in university.)
What’s perhaps not quite so funny, at least to me, is that Ortberg uses the Bible as a text in some places, making me wonder if she views the work as fantasy. Now, I’m no prude — I may be a Christian, a rather progressive one, and I don’t take the Bible’s stories as literal truth. But I wondered if these tales twisted from the Book of God merited being told in the same breath as children’s nursery rhymes and such. It got me thinking, though, because I imagine that a lot of what’s in the Bible is tied to the patriarchy if you don’t really go digging for feminist perspectives in Bible (they’re there, you just have to look and read between the lines sometimes), and if Ortberg is doing is turning things around so that they make sense from a woman’s point of view. So, I’m not sure if method works successfully (and would have merited a distinct book), but it did make me think about things, and question why I might be uncomfortable with the Bible being used to colour in some of these retellings.
In a word, The Merry Spinster is a different kind of read from that of which I have been used to. It pushes boundaries, and it challenges. It got me thinking why other books don’t use the word daughter to describe sons, because aren’t we all a little bit male and a little bit female inside all of us? Basically, The Merry Spinster is a spirited, quick read (clocking in at less than 200 pages) but there’s a density to be found here. The book offers a lot to chew on from a feminist perspective, but you could also just enjoy the stories on their own merits as sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing (and sometimes both) versions of classics most of us grew up reading — or having someone read to us. Lovers of Kiddie Lit will probably love what’s been done here, and it helps a bit if you’re also a fan of curdling psychological terror. The Merry Spinster fascinates and frightens, as much as it can be sometimes frustrating, so give it a glance the next time you’re in the library or bookstore. There’s much here to admire, even if not all of it entirely works.
Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror was published by Henry Holt and Company today, on March 13, 2018.
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