In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.
Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.
You can read my full review below.
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
- publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
- publication date: February 26, 2019
- length: 224 pages
1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.
–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.
That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)
Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.
Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).
Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.
That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.
That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.
That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.
But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.
There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.
That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆
Reviews and books you might also enjoy:
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Goodreads)
My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.