Before Hot Little Hands, I’d never made it to the end of a short story collection. It’s not that I don’t like short stories—there are a few I’ve adored—but I could never quite push myself to read a whole book of them. After a few stories, I would always find myself putting the book down *just for a second* and then neglecting ever to pick it up again. Not so with Hot Little Hands.
Abigal Ulman’s first collection contains nine stories, each on the theme of what it means for a girl to desire and be desired. The girls’ ages range from 13–27, they live in Australia, Russia and the US, and their stories could not be more different—but each in their own way, they are all coming of age.
Three of the nine stories are about a young English woman named Claire living in the US, and these were particularly strong. In one story we find her accidentally pregnant and navigating the days before her abortion; in another, she is having her heart broken; in the third, she is being refused access back into the States after a trip to Turkey. I fell completely in love with her over the course of the three stories—particularly aching for her in the agonisingly relatable The Pretty One, in which we watch her boyfriend fall subtly, and irreversibly, out of love with her.
Warm-Ups is the stand-out piece: this story of a group of teenage Russian gymnasts preparing for their trip to San Diego is, in a word, haunting. Plus One was another of my favourites. You just try not to adore a story that begins with this line: “Amelia couldn’t finish her book, so she decided to have a baby.”
Especially moving were Chagall’s Wife and Same Old Same As. Both these stories, in very different ways, examine what it is to discover your sexuality as a teenage girl. These stories are about the struggle to explore and learn your own body and desires in a society that wants to control and define it; a society that decrees men should be allowed to explore it on your behalf.
I thought Jewish History and Head to Toe were perhaps the weak links in this otherwise unforgettable collection (only in that I had to re-open the book to remind myself what they were about, whereas the other seven are seared into my brain). But even in the slightly weaker stories, Ulman’s characters are more real, complex and intriguing than those in any other short stories I’ve read—more so even than in many novels.
Hot Little Hands worked wonderfully as an overarching narrative—which may be a large part of what kept me so engrossed—but each story packed a punch of its own too. In the week since I finished it, the stories have returned again and again to my thoughts—and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered re-reading the whole book already. (What a difference one short story collection can make, eh?!) This is a collection I would like to give all my female friends to own (I’ve already pre-ordered three copies to give out as presents!)—and it’s one that’s earned a specially carved out nook on my otherwise haphazard bookshelf.
Hot Little Hands is on sale from 31 May in the US and 2 June in the UK.
*I received a review copy from Random House in exchange for an honest review.