Buttered Side DownAugust 30, 2010
I’ve been on a crazy Edna Ferber kick for the past week, starting with a reread of the Emma McChesney books. Up until last week, my knowledge of Ferber was restricted to Emma McChesney, Dinner at Eight, and Giant, so I wasn’t surprised to find that she doesn’t always feel called upon to produce a happy ending, but there’s “Let’s not have a happy ending this time,” and there’s “Buttered Side Down is kind of a perfect name for this collection of stories.” Although, to be fair, the collection Cheerful — By Request is approximately as depressing.
The twelve stories in Buttered Side Down don’t have traditional happy endings, although about half of them end on a positive note. Or–I don’t know, it’s sort of a matter of opinion.
There are a couple of straightforward tearjerkers, one of which (“Meymeys From Cuba”) is the least successful story in the book. There’s also one sort of straightforwardly almost-romantic one (“Sun Dried”), but for the most part Ferber seems to enjoy subverting the expectations of her readers. The man and woman who have a heartfelt conversation on the steps of their boarding house at midnight don’t fall in love — the girl doesn’t, anyway — and the homesick man and woman do go home, but they find that home isn’t what they want anymore. And they don’t fall in love either.
My favorites are “The Man Who Came Back,” where Ferber applies an Alger plot to an ex-con without minimizing his original crime, and “The Kitchen Side of the Door,” where you get the most unambiguous happy ending of the book, as well as some very beautiful and some very unpleasant images, both unsettling.