Leesa Cross-Smith captures what it feels like to be a freshman with a crush in her short story collection So We Can Glow. The stories are full of candy-sweet sensations: fruity drinks; bubblegum; coconut and buttercream; fragrant gardens on humid summer nights; lipgloss, lipgloss, lipgloss.
It’s what Britney Spears referred to when she said she was “not a girl, not yet a woman.” While the characters here range from young teens to middle-aged, the collection feels centered around 19-year-olds – those who are still teens, but barely grown up. They learn the difference between “bad boys” and “bad guys,” and often pine for men from afar. They are obsessed, and in most (but not all) cases, they’re obsessed in a way that’s normal, even fun.
In “Out of the Strong, Something Sweet,” Keri (a teen whose name we don’t learn until a later story) pines for a skater boy over moonlit train tracks:
He cupped his hand and lit his cigarette. His hair twitched across his face. I begged for mercy. He whipped his head back to adjust it. Mercy denied.
Another story, “Pink Bubblegum and Flowers,” is one of my favorites. Chloe is home for summer before her sophomore year of college, which feels like a distant memory. Her parents are out of town, and as she takes care of her brothers, she admires the men working on the deck:
… The only one I cared about was Jordan. Helloooo, Jordan. Jordan looked like he belonged in a movie about the young guy who comes to work on the housewife’s house when the husband is away and Jordan ends up having sex with the housewife in the kitchen while the teapot screams and sizzles over. Jordan was sweaty and shirtless. He literally glistened.
The emotional stakes in this collection revolve around these obsessions; the “we” in the title So We Can Glow is usually romantic and/or sexual. Unapologetically so. It’s nice to see these flirtations treated with respect, something that Cross-Smith excels at. But there are also some fabulous stories about mothers, and of friendship. In “Out of the Strong, Something Sweet,” Keri meets with her two best friends to plot their innocent escape to the train tracks; these girls’ mothers get their own chance to talk about motherhood and friendship in a later story.
While I enjoyed the shamelessly sexy stories about these young women and their summer romances, some of the standout stories, to me, were more grim than playful. In “Get Rowdy,” Faye expresses her love for Rowdy in a way she’s too young to know is unhealthy. “California, Keep Us” explores the intimate way a couple grieves. Other stories don’t explore sad scenarios as much as they explore sad lives, the lives of people trying to find a glimmer of hope – a lonely diner worker imagines relationship trajectories in “Unknown Legend”; in “Boy Smoke,” high schoolers witness the fight a coach has with his wife.
Formally, there’s a lot going on in this collection. There’s a story told in texts, a story in emails, and a one-act play. There are playful lists that both feature in stories as well as fully comprise the story itself. There are a few flash pieces that border on abstract and maybe feel like they end too soon. These varied forms all serve their respective stories well and made the overall reading experience more rewarding. I sometimes had whiplash going from story to story, but it certainly kept me on my toes.
Additionally, while there are a handful of stories that are connected to each other, they’re not part of a story cycle, as there are pairs of linked stories. Because of these connections, the sequence in which they appear is intentional. I rarely skip stories in single-author story collections, but if that’s a habit of yours, I absolutely recommend that you read the collection through its artfully-arranged order. Stories in the first half are revisited in the second, and while they are usually sequels, they feel like prequels, as they add context to the stories you’ve already read.
So We Can Glow is addictively readable. It’s the literary equivalent of someone biting their lip and looking up at you. Reading this in winter, I was temporarily transported to a serious summer night with friends, where we are all eating melty popsicles, gossiping about boys, and sometimes opening up about the things that force us to become adults.
So We Can Glow
By Leesa Cross-Smith
Grand Central Publishing
Published January 21, 2021