‘Things Not to Do’ by Jessica Westhead

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Erica Lenti

There are little things we are all guilty of doing though we know we shouldn’t have. They are humanizing and show humility; they build character. But they simultaneously cause discomfort, a sense of second-hand embarrassment from the outside looking in.

These little things are at the core of Toronto author Jessica Westhead’s second collection of short stories, Things Not to Do. Each story presents itself with a dilemma to the reader: Will I empathize, look past the human error? Or will I shake my head and become a judge of character? This duality is made even more difficult—but entertaining—by Westhead’s humour, which leaves the reader unsure whether to laugh the story off or feel a sense of shame for laughing at all.

The reader must decide: Is it acceptable to show up to your ex-boyfriend’s taco stand, months after a breakup, in search of a greater purpose in your own life? To then spend an afternoon with his new girlfriend’s child, and forget to pick up the phone when her mother calls looking for you? Is it fair to shove two reuniting lovers out of the way at the airport because their reacquaintance has taken too long? Is it wrong not to donate money for a funeral wreath to a grieving colleague if you aren’t particularly fond of them?

No story in Things Not to Do offers a clear-cut perspective. In “Dumpling Night,” central character Glenn plays the part of a macho pseudo-bouncer at a Chinese restaurant where his Aunt Bernice has reserved a room for a private party. The bro type, he is oblivious to the annoyance and disruption he causes among guests. When he offers to rake through Aunt Bernice’s fried rice to check for pebbles or stones that could get caught in her teeth, she tells him to “keep your goddamn fork to yourself.” The entire scene—the stilted conversation, Glenn’s forced laugh as Aunt Bernice chastises him—is uncomfortable, tinged with a sense of loneliness. Is Glenn the family douchebag, or is he just misunderstood, an outsider?

Then there’s Dennis, in “Empathize or Die,” who feels a great deal of honour when he decides to attend a local restaurant’s open-mic night. He takes great pains to find beauty in the dreadfully simple, immersing himself in a young woman’s mediocre recital while everyone around him sighs and shifts in their chairs. It’s as though no one has let him in on the joke: this open mic is not exclusive, nor is anyone performing particularly artfully.

In Quill and Quire, Andrew Woodrow-Butcher calls Things Not to Do a “quiet collection” of stories, and it’s an apt observation. No one story or character is a standout, and no scene or plot point is particularly outrageous. Instead, Westhead finds her strength in understatement. The simplicity of characters’ everyday lives—heading home from the airport, spending an evening at a family dinner, navigating office life—makes it easier to empathize with their motivations, because it’s likely, in some form or fashion, that you’ve made the same mistake before.

In this simplicity there is a certain malaise about the characters. A sense of despair looms over each of them, manifesting in a dreary loneliness, a longing for the past or an insecurity. This undercuts Westhead’s trademark humour: it makes the reader do a double-take. This dichotomy of funny but not-that-funny-after-all only complicates the reader’s evaluation of these complex characters. At its best, Things Not to Do is an exercise in empathy, a reminder of human error and the need for a little bit of understanding.

Cormorant Books | 224 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1770865068 

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Erica Lenti

Erica Lenti is a writer and editor from Toronto. She is currently the editor of This Magazine.