Even the title story reminds us that fairy tales continue to exist: A father peers into the world of his daughter’s Instagram, where girls attempt to fashion stories out of incomprehensible images. “New Instagram post: a peeled-off pair of ballet tights, splayed on the white tiles of a bathroom floor.”
“Likes” may cause some discomfort. Girls, with their swift and mysterious pubescent metamorphoses, unsettle themselves, their parents and society.
But it’s all part of Shun-lien Bynum’s breadcrumb path that starts with childhood and ends with womanhood. She’s tracing seasons in the lives of female characters, from the early years in which they attend Waldorf School fairs replete with elves, fairies and compostable lemonade cups through middle-school nicknames and midlife sadness. She’s not tracing them in a linear fashion; the stories each take place in specific lives and milieus.
“Tell Me My Name,” the second story in the book, focuses on happily settled Los Angeles lesbians who live next door to once-famous Manhattan club icon Betti Pérez, a dead ringer for Dita von Teese or perhaps Debbi Mazar: “She has arching eyebrows and the smallest possible pores, flat red lipstick. . . . She must be at least forty-five years old! You’d never know it, because her skin is amazing.”
Betti’s looks are important to this story, especially at a point where the unnamed narrator sees relief “do something strange to Betti’s face. For the first time I see a trace of looseness there . . . the slight heaviness under her jaw, or how her foundation lies dustily on top of her skin.” If women are the central characters in “Likes,” time is the villain that stalks them: The seconds in which a mother turns away from her little girl. The long wait for a king to die. A longed-for creative residency turned sour, the momentary dopamine hits of Instagram attention, the slow currying of favor to gain attention from a man.
Shun-lien Bynum allows her characters to believe they’ve seen the truth, but shows her readers that the characters — like us — rarely get it right. “Likes” is a short-story collection you should read slowly, but it’s so good, each story at such a high-wire level, that you’ll wind up tearing through it and wishing for more.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pp. $26