Best known for her novel American Wife, a fictional life of Laura Bush, and more recently Rodham, about Hillary Clinton, Sittenfeld has an analytical eye for the festering grudges and deep-seated disrespects of everyday life. Help Yourself is her second short-story collection, and shows her feeling for the form: what could just have been an excruciating anecdote becomes a resonant story when Jill’s unwanted celebrity is counterpointed with her search for a neighbour’s dog.
Ultimately Sittenfeld’s stories revolve around how quickly — and how accurately — we judge ourselves and others. In “Creative Differences”, a crew of documentary-makers from LA and New York fly into Wichita and proceed to look around with disdain. It’s the local photographer they’re there to film who really knows herself best: she turns down a huge career opportunity when she realises that it’s essentially a commercial for toothpaste. The producer can’t understand where her “bizarrely pure . . . uncompetitive” confidence comes from, his faith in his own judgment has been so eroded. Fortunately for us, this is not true for Sittenfeld. Her ability to expose our foibles, regrets and prejudices has never been sharper.