Based Upon Availability by Alix Strauss 352 pages Published June, 8, 2010 Fiction, interconnected stories
I met Alix Strauss, author of Based Upon Availability, while I was in New York City for BEA. I immediately loved her, and had already jumped across the table to snatch her book when I was visiting with some folks at HarperCollins. The book was described as “dark”, and I think what I heard was “covered in chocolate and dripping with diamonds.” That’s how fast I grabbed Based Upon Availability. Meeting Alix was awesome, though I then worried about the possibility of not liking her book. It’s happened before, that I met an author first, read their book, and didn’t like it. It was awkward (for me), and the author eventually unfollowed me on Twitter (surely not because I didn’t like the book…I’m sure my tweets were boring). So there was a certain amount of trepidation surrounding this book for me. But guess what?
I loved it.
I found myself staring off into space thinking about the book, which is what I do when I love a book. And there’s this one scene that I can’t get out of my head, and the scene just reverberates over and over. I admit to having a terrible memory, the kind that you expect in your 104-year-old grandma, but I will not forget the scene. It’s not because the scene is horrific or shocking or gruesome, but Strauss sets up the whole story for this very last thing that happens, so it definitely leaves an impression.
The strength of Based Upon Availability is in the author’s ability to convey a character’s deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities within a few short pages. Robin aches to have a good relationship with her sister. Sheila wishes she could find a man. Trish wants the old days back with her best friend, her best friend who was once fat but is now skinny. Franny wants to connect with someone, anyone, and finds a connection with her neighbors when there’s a fire in their apartment building. Lou, a washed up singer who hasn’t been sober for almost 20 years, would do anything for the golden days again.
These are short, interconnected stories, held together by Morgan, the manager of the Four Seasons, the hotel that these women have in common. Morgan goes into guests’ rooms and takes a pill that they have, whatever it is. She pokes through their luggage, always careful to leave things as they were. She’s stunted in that she still thinks and talks to her dead sister every day, who died when Morgan was only six years old. She thinks about how better her life would be if her sister hadn’t had cancer.
There wasn’t a single woman that my heart didn’t reach out for. It’s such a cliche to say how ‘raw’ the book was, but I really felt like the emotions and insecurities were so close to the surface that if I reached out, I might be able to touch them and see what they feel like. I was almost embarrassed by Morgan’s attempts to reach out to Trish. I wanted to tell her to not let her feelings be so naked. But what’s wrong with putting yourself out there, letting yourself be vulnerable?
Trish’s story, and particularly the ending to that story, is what has stayed with me. Strauss hits on a theme in society that continues to frustrate and sadden me: “When everyone has left you, at least you’ll be thin.” I just want to cry over that statement.
Common through all of these stories is each woman’s need for connection, but they’re unable, for one reason or another, to make that connection. It reminded me of the need that everyone has of being loved, of having a friend, of mattering to someone else. Trish could see that Morgan was reaching out to her, but she was too wrapped up in her own problems to reciprocate. I couldn’t help but think how much better off they might have been if they’d at least had each other.
Even scenes that are silly and funny belie a deeper meaning. Morgan, in one of the hotel rooms, steals a sex toy and then prances around her apartment with it on. It’s a brace that holds her rigid, but ironically gives her the ability to breathe deeper than she can during the day. It releases her somehow, gives her a freedom that she feels when she has it on that she doesn’t feel when she has it off.
My only complaint, like any good book of short stories, is that I’d love to see Strauss write a novel about one person. I would have liked more time with each character, and I wonder what Strauss could do with one person over the course of 300 pages.
Rating: 92 out of 100
You might want to also see what Raging Bibliomania said, as I think she captured the essence of the book quite well.