Always Happy Hour: Stories, Mary Miller: Book Review

A brilliant, yet incredibly different collection.

Always Happy Hour Mary Miller book review
Always Happy Hour: Stories Book Cover Always Happy Hour: Stories
Mary Miller
Short Stories, Contemporary
Liveright
January 10, 2017
Hardcover
256

Combining hard-edged prose and savage Southern charm, Mary Miller showcases transcendent contemporary talent at its best. With its collection of lusty, lazy, hard-drinking characters forever in their own way, Always Happy Hour confirms Miller as an heir apparent to Mary Gaitskill.

Claustrophobic and lonesome, acerbic and magnetic, the women in Always Happy Hour seek understanding in the most unlikely places—a dilapidated foster home where love is a liability, a trailer park laden with a history of bad decisions, and the empty corners of a dream home bought after a bitter divorce. Miller evokes the particular gritty comfort found in bad habits as hope turns to dust, and proves yet again her essential role in American fiction.

After a brief detour from my TBR, I picked up Always Happy Hour, a collection of short stories by Mary Miller, in an attempt to ease myself back into the books I originally planned to read over the summer. Although I have already decided that my next read will be a recent purchase that is outside of my planned reading for the remainder of the summer (I will eventually catch up on my backlog), Always Happy Hour was an authentic short story collection that initially captured my interest on Goodreads a few months back.

Furthermore, the short story collection provided me with a much-needed change of scenery in terms of narrators and perspective, especially after reading Sleeping Giants, which is written primarily in interview format (although it was a brilliant touch, it was a little jarring).

I have made it a bit of a habit to talk about the covers of the books that I read, too, and Always Happy Hour is no exception. On closer inspection, I was immediately reminded of a series of drawings by Sally Nixon that I have seen floating around on the Internet and Instagram that capture carefree women in a realistic way. After diving into Miller’s short story collection, I found myself constantly reminded of these images, which capture her narrators perfectly, as women who are carefree, independent, and incredibly real.

This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book.

Immediately, I found it incredibly surprising that Always Happy Hour includes 16 short stories in slightly under 300 pages. Out of the entire collection, only two of the stories were incredibly short (ranging between five and seven pages), with the majority of them averaging at least 20. Interestingly enough, the title can be seen as an allusion to alcohol consumption. There’s no hidden meaning, and these stories aren’t exactly happy. In fact, most of them are pretty depressing. I don’t say this with the intention of deterring your interest, however, as Miller touches on topics that are very relevant – anxiety, depression, abuse, alcoholism, and difficult relationships, just to name a few. And, despite the rather bleak nature of the stories, the women featured are some of the most relatable that I have encountered in literature so far. They are not perfect.

From their bodies and their habits, to their actions and insecurities, Miller paints a picture of modern day women. However, the modern woman that Miller describes has her flaws. While she is unafraid to walk around in her underwear, lounge around and read, watch reality television, or partake in unhealthy processed foods, she does have a number of flaws that many will find unrelatable, such as involvement with drugs, and unfaithfulness. Ultimately, the women in Miller’s stories are not the women that are considered perfect within American society today: they are not a size zero, they do not have the perfect job, or the perfect life, for that matter. They are real women, with real problems.

Throughout 16 different, yet incredibly similar stories, Miller’s skill as a writer shines through in her clear, honest and poignant writing. As you move through each story, you are able to briefly live in the narrator’s shoes, becoming aware of her innermost thoughts and desires. Through detail, description and short sentences, Miller manages to capture feeling with incredible depth. From awkward moments and uncomfortable scenes, to scenes that depict love and desire, Miller captures them all beautifully, transporting you to the scene in a single sentence that manages to capture the mood perfectly.

In one story, Miller catches an awkward silence between a couple that has nothing to say to each other during a car ride:

“The basketball that’s been rolling around in his trunk is finally still.”

– excerpt from “The House on Main Street” in Mary Miller’s Always Happy Hour

In the same story, she also describes forced interactions through messages online:

“It’s an ongoing nuisance, this pressure to engage in tedious conversations about dating and work when all I want to do is watch animal videos and stalk my exes. I consider the items in my Amazon cart, wonder if I still want them.”

At the heart of Always Happy Hour, Miller focuses on the ways in which women perceive themselves, along with the ways in which they are perceived by others in the modern world. Each story deals with women facing their own insecurities as they compare themselves to others, which is something that the media constantly forces upon women of all ages.

“I hardly ever posted new photos or took them or even agreed to be in them because all of the personas I put on felt wrong. I didn’t feel sporty or nerdy or sexy. I wasn’t pretty or ugly enough, fat or thin enough. Eventually I wouldn’t need to construct any persona at all. I would just be old.”

– excerpt from “First Class” in Mary Miller’s Always Happy Hour

One of the things that I absolutely loved about this collection was Miller’s ability to describe what life with a cat is like. Although her characters proclaim to be dog lovers, they tolerate and even have sweet moments with cats, which is something that I immediately found appealing, not only because I love cats, but because these ladies truly do gain what it’s really like to live with one:

“They climb around her purring, louder and louder, and she wonders if she could put them in her car and take them to her apartment.”

– excerpt from “Instructions” in Mary Miller’s Always Happy Hour

“’That’s the allure of a cat,’ I say, ‘they’re independent,’ which is what I’ve heard cat people say. I still don’t understand how cats work. You can’t yell at them or punish them like you can with a dog.”

– excerpt from “Charts” in Mary Miller’s Always Happy Hour

For all of the things that I loved about Always Happy Hour, including the differences in perspective and tone, which even includes a story written in the second person, I did find that many of the stories felt a little too similar. A lot of the women were divorced, or in unhappy relationships. Most of them did not work, and suffered from anxiety. Some of the women were unable to have children of their own, but were often forced to interact with the children of their counterparts.

Although these traits fit in with the overall theme of the collection, reading the stories back to back felt, at times, repetitive. Despite this, however, I found myself longing for each story to continue. I wanted to know more about the women and their choices. I found myself relating with each one in a different way and, as such, I wanted to continue along her journey in life, if only for a few more pages.

Always Happy Hour was an incredibly complex read, full of commentary and difficult questions. Miller’s prose pulls you into each and every story and keeps you there, pondering the meaning behind each character’s actions in life. By providing the reader with inner dialogue and touching on topics that are usually avoided in literature, Miller paints an incredibly accurate description of the lives we live that we don’t want anyone else to know about. While each story goes incredibly fast, they are all filled with an immense amount of detail and depth that shed some light on topics that we generally tend to avoid concerning relationships, mental health, poverty, suffering, and abuse, in everyday life.

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Written by Melissa Ratcliff

Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.