For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Shannon Sanders—whose story “Bird of Paradise” appears in our Fall 2023 issue—examines a passage from Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo.
I first came across Lisa Taddeo’s short fiction in the pages of this very journal—a story called “Beautiful People.” I fell in love and went on to read everything else she had published, and I eagerly anticipated everything she soon would; when her collection Ghost Lover was published in 2022, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. At the time, I was sharpening my own short-fiction skills and was reading widely with an eye focused on how other writers handled point of view. No one does it like Taddeo. Her prose sparkles in close third person, her lacerating social observation laid out in narrative voices that are at turns vulnerable and witty. Consider this opening to “Maid Marian,” a heavy hitter from the collection:
In line at the Aldi, her phone vibed twice. She removed it from her Herschel hip pack, an accessory Harry had claimed to love. Am I too old for it? she’d asked him, the first time she’d worn it in his presence. You will never be old enough, he’d said, kissing the top of her head. And ruffling her hair, or what remained of it.
It seems simple enough and does all the things a beginning should do: establish, at least generally, the who, what, when, and where. But it does so much more than that. I analyzed this passage with a class I taught recently. We read it line by line, savoring the word choice, the color each carefully chosen detail adds to the picture. The Aldi line. The term vibed rather than vibrated, signaling that we’re sitting on the shoulder of a character concerned with her own coolness. The Herschel hip pack, which puts us in mind of Brooklynites of recent years (and indeed this story is set in the middle of the Trump administration).
And then there’s Harry, who enters the story even before we learn our protagonist’s own name (it’s Noni). By this point in Ghost Lover—“Maid Marian” appears more than halfway through—we are primed to expect that this story will involve the themes that have recurred throughout the other stories: beauty and self-consciousness, aging, professional identity, and the danger a woman’s desire—particularly for a man—can pose to her world. Harry’s tender reassurance (of course she can wear the hip pack!) is sweet but also foreboding, especially when in the following sentence we learn that Noni is on the downslope of her own desirability. Already we can sense Harry’s outsize importance and what that might signal.
It’s a fantastic story, one that delivers on the promises of the first paragraph. Indeed, Harry’s role in Noni’s life has been a dynamic and destructive one, a fact that unfolds richly over the pages that follow. The end of the story is as satisfying as it gets. What every story in the collection does very well, “Maid Marian” does superbly. Most of the protagonists in Ghost Lover are young women; Noni is not, and perhaps that’s why her story, so clear and sharp, knocks the others into focus. It’s wonderful to read a story like this one that reminds me of the joy of writing. Every time I read it, it’s like a key turning in a lock and suddenly I can’t wait to get to my computer.