Book review: The Color Master by Aimee Bender

A writer of extraordinary short stories does not disappoint, as she gives folkloric tales elements of realistic fiction, and vice versa.

Photograph: Jessica Lin

By Aimee Bender. Doubleday, $26.

Readers of Aimee Bender’s short fiction have come to expect the extraordinary—whether it’s a tale’s surprising premise or its masterful conclusions, Bender rarely disappoints. In her latest, she provides more of the unexpected situations and fast-paced eloquence of her previous accomplishments The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures.

Oddities abound, among them a regenerating cake, a princess escaping impending nuptials to her father with her dressmakers’ help and a family whose household items multiply as if their home were being “backwards robbed.” The Color Master includes realistic stories as well, but these incorporate conundrums and quests similar to the ones in Bender’s folkloric offerings. The result is that the odd yarns feel normal, and vice versa: The fairy tales are filled with fully realized characters rather than the expected caricatures; the realistic stories are imbued with a fantastical strangeness.

In “Origin Lessons,” a teacher relies upon puppets to demonstrate the sad reality of the big bang theory: The very moment the universe came together, it began to fall apart. Throughout the collection, characters come to feel dissatisfied, defective, unprepared and lonely. But like the teacher and his silly puppets, Bender delivers these hard realizations with whimsy.

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