"I Meant It Once" by Kate Doyle

"I Meant It Once" by Kate Doyle

I Meant It Once by Kate Doyle is a quiet, but revelatory debut collection. Each story is as sharp with wit and piercing with insight as the next. She charts the ambiguousness of various women’s twenties as they each try to hold on to what made them happy, desired, or wanted. The path forward for all of them is clouded with unknowing and the uncomfortable feelings that come with adulthood and maturity. Friendships change. Romances are not quite as hot as they once were. Life does not have the same luster as it once did in their youth.

A person’s twenties are a very fragile if not liminal time. Not all of Doyle’s characters exist in that decade, but their deepest regrets and passions are found there. “I said, You’re aware I’m busy, too? He said in his friendly way, so benevolent, thoughtful: No, that’s how busy I’ve been. Too busy to notice that you’re busy.” These sentiments haunt the main characters, who wallow and deflect with cynicism disguised as humor. The stories are full of wry exchanges like this as each character navigates the treacherous terrain of seeking to know and be known by others. Even when marriages are on the rocks and thoughts of how their partner would turn out different have been unfulfilled, there is this unrelenting desire for it still, no matter how futile.

These struggles are not the least of their worries and Doyle does her best to balance the inconsequential issues of most of her characters against what more serious individuals would call “real world” issues. The razor-sharp sensibility when it comes to her recurring family of characters; Helen, Evan, and Grace. They recur together in two stories in the collection, although Helen appears once again in an inventive story that details the flourishing and then entropy of a friendship that defines the years following. The stories provide a welcome centering, since they do not occur one after another, but are spread out in the collection. It forces you to recall the details of the earlier stories and remind yourself of the history these characters have with one another.

There’s comfort here, even if none of the characters are able to achieve it...

The title of the collection is pulled from the second story, “Cinnamon Baseball Coyote.” It involves the three siblings mentioned earlier. When thinking back to a note Helen had written Grace when they were kids, which stated that she hated her sister. She defends this, “I only kept it because I meant it once.” This is the axis on which all of the stories swing. It is a single choice, decision, or moment that defines these women and reverberates through their lives. It continues to haunt them and, in some ways, these small, seemingly inconsequential events become larger than their lives. Helen’s self-resentment and lack of belief in her self-worth destroy her relationship with her best friend and continues to isolate her from her siblings. She cannot get out of her own way. 

Painfully, Doyle is holding a mirror up to the reader, because while all of her characters are well-drawn and ultimately human, Helen is the keystone. She is fragile, frustrating, and all of us at one time or another. Stuck in a holding pattern that never seems to end as a barista, while her little brother and sister excel in their passions, it is incredibly easy to relate to. Her jealousy of their drive, motivation, and discipline is palpable. Her parents offer no real help: “Her mother says, You’re smart and you’ve had a lot of advantages in your life. We’re hopeful you will find your way out of this somehow.” Helen’s comment says what we’re all thinking, You have no reason to be sad. And at some level, she doesn’t, but this is revealing the deeper truth that the collection continues to circle around, that “coming of age” is about self-reliance. If there is support to be had—great, but otherwise you cannot count on it. Helen alludes to knowing this through her spats with her siblings and how she figures out her next step, but she will have to do it her way.

While these narratives may remind us of our own families and relationships, they reveal how universal it is to lose these comfortable circles as we get older. Life can and does become dull and disappointing as time goes on. Is writing about these common human experiences remarkable?  What does Doyle offer that feels new or satisfying to the reader? Is it more than gender relations? Examples of tenuous and fraught threads of family binding characters together? The wish for authentic love, driven by real connection, rather than infatuation and attention? Like all of our experiences, the narratives of the collection are as varied as our own and provide a lens to view them from new perspectives and new understandings.

Doyle provides a subtle critique of femininity as understood historically as well. It relies on these social norms to deliver such lines as, “It was easier for men to idealize a family, of course.” Or when one of her characters is fighting with her ex, who assumes the French press is his, surrenders his rights to the press, when in reality it was hers all along. Her characters may not know exactly what they want from life yet, but they do want their voices and experiences respected and understood. The interaction between men and women is always self-deprecating at some level, but also deeply insightful of how those two genders work together. The snark and biting sentences are smoothed over within the next breath. It lends itself to how the male characters are treated throughout, since in stories without antagonists, they are the closest to the role.  The kind of flippant ignorance among the men throughout the stories would have been a problem in less skilled hands, but the opportunity is used to show humor as well as human failings. This is just the way people are and there is very little you can do to change them, these stories tell us.  

What separates this collection from others like it, is the brutal authenticity that proves Doyle’s authorial voice and talent will be one to watch in the years to come. The reflective, but sardonic humor is too few and far between in contemporary literature, so her prose is especially welcome. Yet, it does not detract from the seriousness of her topics nor rob the sympathy the reader should have for her characters. Despite the melancholic nature of the stories, they wrap you in a blanket as if you’re taking shelter from a fall rain. There’s comfort here, even if none of the characters are able to achieve it, and that is the greatest praise for Doyle’s debut.

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Alexander Pyles

Review by Alexander Pyles

Alexander Pyles is a writer, editor, and reviewer based in the Chicago area. Originally from Virginia Beach, he finds himself stranded in the Midwest among the corn, but he has come to enjoy the rural setting. He holds an MA in Philosophy and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. His fiction has appeared in Radix Media, Trembling with Fear, Black Hare Press, and other venues around the web. His nonfiction has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Dark Matter Magazine, Three Crows Magazine, Horror Tree, and No Sell Out Productions. When not writing or reading, he is attempting to cook, garden, or play video games when his two toddlers allow it. You can find him at @Pylesofbooks on Twitter or www.pylesofbooks.com.

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