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This Cake is for the Party

by Sarah Selecky

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This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky
© St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Press, 2012

With the depth of Joan Didion and the readability of Sloane Crosley, Sarah Selecky's collection of short stories is a must-read. This Cake is for the Party is a compilation of ten stories, each written smartly and with incredible precision. These stories are excellent works of realism that give the reader a glimpse into the days of strangers, each at different points in his or her life.

Published in 2010, The Cake is for the Party was a finalist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Frank O'Connor Award. It was also placed on The Globe 100: Best Canadian Fiction list. Selecky was acknowledged by a CBC Bookie Award, as well: Best New Writer of 2010. And these tributes are certainly well-placed. Selecky's first published story collection is impossible to put down. Her wit is unmistakable as she takes her readers through a variety of different situations (cheating, making a living, the death of a loved one) and relationships - new, current and old.

The stories lend themselves to a kind of voyeuristic experience, almost as if we are peeking in the windows of people living their lives, unaware of our existence. The characters are refreshingly honest and not a single story line feels contrived or old. Readers can sense the tension in a room or feel the stress of an individual. We look over the shoulder of a mother-in-law reading a letter from her son's wife, with whom she's always had a difficult relationship. We feel uncomfortable as a friend tries to sell her guests a supplement that has not been approved by the FDA. We mourn with a daughter who loses both parents too soon.
Selecky is more than just a writer; she is also a writing coach, pushing aspiring and successful writers alike to get into a writing routine and write stories that they themselves would want to read. In addition to introducing her and her fiction, her website is home to an ecourse and a writer "starter kit," which promises to give the reader a new perspective on writing. Her first writers' workshop was run out of her house in 2001, and it has grown to attract such a large number of people that there is a waiting list.

Selecky is a proponent of the short story. As she says, "may the form continue to be adored for its elegance and intelligence, and no longer viewed as an unmarketable warm up to novel writing." And these short stories certainly prove her point. At times, it seems that more is said in under twenty pages than is ever said in a 400-page novel. She seems to have written with determination, and no word is wasted - no story goes on longer than it should.

The collection begins with a quote from Shunryu Suzuki: "All of you are perfect just as you are and you can use a little improvement." This theme of imperfection is carried throughout the stories. Interestingly, though, the title story is omitted from the collection. But it is not necessarily out of place in the context of the stories that do appear. "This cake is for the party" implies something that is close, but yet unattainable, and that is something that many of the characters deal with: getting pregnant, running into an ex-boyfriend, dealing with an alcoholic friend. No one is perfect, we are reminded, and that perfection - our cake - is always just out of reach.

Sarah Selecky's fiction has also appeared in The New Quarterly, Elle Canada, The Journey Prize and The Walrus, among others.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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