The Children’s Party by Amy Hempel, 1997
The magic trick:
Subtly setting up a surprise ending
A quick summary of my thoughts for 96 percent of this story:
I hate these people, I hate these people, I hate these people.
A quick summary of my thoughts for the final 4 percent:
Oh !@#!@. Hempel’s about to burn it all down. Yes!
Hempel’s early stories feature people saying very clever things. But those people, more often than not, were young and confused and frustrated – making those very clever things feel like much-needed defenses against a cruel world.
In a later story like this one? Well, the people are still saying very clever things, but now that they’re successful and stable, it just plays as smug self-satisfaction.
So, yeah, I couldn’t stand any of them.
But the seeds of revolution were being planted.
First, notice that the narrator describes Tony as the “handsome, hearty next-door neighbor.” No one else gets a physical description.
Second, notice the classically Hempel comment about moose: “But no males with antlers. They’re shy. You have to wait. You see them come out to look for females in the fall.”
I rolled my eyes at that one, but I should’ve taken it more seriously.
These are the crucial clues that point the way to the story’s theme.
The ending then is perfect. It’s a twist ending in a sense. Certainly it surprised me. But unlike an O. Henry smack in the face, it’s subtle. The ending really only provides another couple of clues. It’s still up to the reader to put it all together.
And that’s quite a trick on Hempel’s part.
The baby’s mother picked up a small inflated raft in the shape of a giraffe. She pointed the long spotted neck at her husband and winked at him through the two small holes in the seat. “Imagine being able to fit your legs through these,” she said.
“I thought they were for your breasts,” her husband said.
Bruce’s wife shushed him. We heard the distant, slightly hysterical cry of a loon on the lake.
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