The stories in Everyone But You start with strained relationships, from roommates and neighbors to siblings and marriages, and almost without exception, they examine those relationships as they spiral through more disaster and disappointment. In the acknowledgements, Sandra Novack notes that she wrote most of these stories more than six years ago, around the time she received her MFA, and it’s easy to see why her debut novel, Precious, got published first. These are occasionally enlightening stories mired in stock formulas that don’t earn their emotional weight.
The lead story, “Fireflies,” reads like a doomed combination of (500) Days Of Summer and The Man Who Came To Dinner, featuring a not-quite-manic Pixie Dream Girl who imposes a relationship on a stranger by forcing her way into his life, then continuing to show up at his apartment until she just moves in when the slacker relents. She steamrolls into his life, gets to know his mother, and tries to force him to go back to school, while in the background, a serial arsonist lights fires around the city where they live. That may sound overstuffed for a short story, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg in Everyone But You.
Several of the book’s stories are overloaded with intriguing details that fail to add up. The titular quirky detail of “My Father’s Mahogany Leg” is a prosthesis sent to a daughter after her estranged father’s death. “That the leg was sent priority mail annoys me,” the narrator says, in one of the rare moments of acute personal observation. She wonders about its meaning, but then rambles off into descriptions of her lovers, like the current “Jimmy #3,” an overly familiar detached partner disinterested in her life. Many of the female protagonists ruminate for long stretches on their emotional shortcomings, which they attempt to compensate for with too much meaningless sex. One potential standout story, “Conversions On The Road To Damascus,” is waylaid from its central simmering conflict between two roommates for the exact same reason.
The middle-aged failed artist in “Cerulean Skies” grows jealous of her husband when he rediscovers his love of painting and decides to paint a nude using a much younger model. “Memphis” depicts a newlywed couple taking care of the husband’s schizophrenic brother, who dashes off in the middle of the night, attempting an escape to Memphis. Each successive struggling relationship builds on the previous ones, but the failures never come to a point more prescient than “relationships are hard,” or “nothing lasts forever.”
The interspersed shorter stories run shorter than 10 pages, and amount to sketches of scenes, glimpses into characters that reach for relevance, but end before there’s enough on the page to care about. Novack has more skill than is displayed in these stories, given her successful debut novel, but when looking for material for her second published work, backward in her career clearly wasn’t the right direction to go.