REVIEW: Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis
Ori’s holidays are an endless series of elaborately awful meals cooked by her one-time stepfather Dave’s latest bride. Attended by a loose assemblage of family, Ori particularly dreads Grandma Elving—grandmother of Dave’s fourth wife—and her rhapsodizing about the Christmas she worked at Woolworth’s in the 1950s. And, of course, she hates being condescended to by beautiful, popular Sloane and her latest handsome pre-med or pre-law boyfriend.
But this Christmas is different. Sloane’s latest catch Lassiter is extremely interested in Grandma Elving’s boringly detailed memories of that seasonal job, seeing in them the hallmarks of a TFBM, or traumatic flashbulb memory. With Ori’s assistance, he begins to use the older woman in an experiment—one she eagerly agrees to. As Ori and Lassiter spend more time together, Ori’s feelings for him grow alongside the elusive mystery of Grandma’s past.
Dear Ms. Willis,
After all the wonderful novellas and short stories of yours that I read and reviewed last year, I didn’t think one could be better. I was wrong. This one is boss. This one is awesome. This one made me want to start reading it the moment I finished reading it the first time. It’s that good.
Amazingly an entire world is packed into this novella. I felt I was there at the table with Ori’s stepfather’s latest wife’s newest ghastly dinner food – the calamari salad complete with tentacles was the one I voted most likely to make me retch at the table. I could hear Aunt Mildred pointedly going on about how things were in her day and how bad they are now – as she glares at Ori as if it’s that poor girl’s fault. Then there’s Sloane – one of the outwardly beautiful people who always gets her way just because she always has.
But Hark the Herald Angels Sing, things are going to be different this year. Yes, Ori will end up listening to Grandma Elving’s boring, oh-so-detailed memories of 60 years ago when she worked the Christmas holidays at Woolworth’s – Ori has even counted how many times she’s heard the part about the nativity set – but this year there’s someone new. Lassiter is even cuter and blonder than most of Sloane’s boyfriends but he actually pays attention to Grandma Elving and to Ori as well – if only because Ori is helping deliver Grandma Elving to his clinic where he’s studying TFBMs.
Thankfully Grandma Elving insists that Ori stay with her during the clinic visits and later that she, Lassiter and Ori go together to see if revisiting her past will help spark the traumatic memory that Lassiter needs to prove that Grandma Elving’s remarkable recall of that time will work for his project.
By the time I finished reading the story, I felt that I had worked in that Woolworth’s along with Grandma Elving and I also felt that I was watching Ori fall for Lassiter. Lassiter is much too kind and sweet – shown in how careful he is with fragile, eighty year old Grandma Elving as well as Ori – for Sloane. Okay we all know that. But what will happen? Will Lassiter break free from Sloane’s tentacles? Does he see in Ori what she – hopelessly, she thinks – sees in him? And why does Grandma Elving have picture perfect recall of that Christmas season so many years ago?
I won’t give away any more details or clues but the tentacle dinner finale, the Mylar balloons and stuffed penguins in the elevator, plus the scene in the car parking lot had me laughing and cheering. I adored this story! A