We’ve all experienced it—that charged, all-eyes-on-you moment just before we blow out the candles on our birthday cake—the wish moment. Since this chance comes only once a year, the wish must be perfect. It must truly define our heart’s desire. If you’re like me this moment is laden with pressure and second-guessing. My heart’s desire is a shifty, morphing entity and has many equally enticing alternatives. I fear my candles will become part of the frosting before I finally make my choice.
Fairy tales often contain this wish moment. A genie, a fairy godmother, a magical room, a storm, is hovering, primed to fulfill the protagonist’s heart’s desire. But they soon find that wish granted equals new trouble, or at least a new, more aching, unfulfilled heart’s desire.
Four stories in Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble use the form of modern fairy tales to explore the complexities of wishing and wish fulfillment. In the first story, “The Summer People,” Fran is a modern-day Cinderella whose mother has disappeared into an alternate world. Fran’s alcoholic father forces her to take over for him as caretaker of summer homes of rich people. He abandons Fran when she’s ill with the flu to purge his sins at a random out-of-town prayer meeting, leaving her with the task of shopping and cleaning for the vacationers’ impending arrival.
Fran has also inherited from her mother the responsibility of caring for a community of other-world beings trapped in our world. Fran calls them “the summer people.” They live in a stone house, sequestered by magic in the woods. Much like the bizarre characters Alice encounters in Wonderland, these folk are a whimsical, needy and mildly malicious group of fairy god-mothers/fathers who bestow on the members of Fran’s family trinkets and potions, and one chance to achieve their heart’s desire in return for cleaning the house and shopping for the things on their incessant, peculiar shopping lists.
One of my favorite passages in the book is when Fran receives a flu remedy from the summer people—a terrific example of the richness and specificity of Link’s literary talent:
But, much like Alice, by the time Fran’s wish is fulfilled by the summer people, her heart’s desire has changed. She realizes she wants the same thing her mother wanted—escape.
In “The Lesson,” the sixth story of the collection, Link really delves into the complicated dilemma of wishing. Thanh’s heart’s desire is, with his husband, Harper, to adopt a baby from a surrogate mother who is six months pregnant with Thanh’s child. The pregnancy is tenuous; the mother is on bed rest. Thanh is caring for her, cooking, cleaning and entertaining, trying to build a friendship in the hope that the mother won’t change her mind and decide to keep the baby. But when Thanh and Harper go to an out-of-town wedding on a remote island owned by the groom’s family, Thahn’s careful planning falls apart—the surrogate mother starts having contractions.
Thanh and Harper are trapped on the island, there’s no cell service and no room on the outgoing flights, and the island can only be reached by a boat that comes twice a day. The menace in this fairy tale is subtle—the late-arriving groom is described as “a little scary” and the island is named “Bad Claw” after an extinct, vicious-looking, cat-like creature with the tail of a beaver and poison claws. One of these creatures, a taxidermy version, leers at Harper and Thanh in their room when they try to sleep.
It is when the bride, Fleur, insists that the wedding party dress up in gawdy second-hand wedding dresses and climb to a pond at the center of the island that Link reveals the real menace in this story. Fleur wants everyone to participate in the groom’s family tradition of making a wish as they throw a pebble or piece of shell into the pond. In a stunning two-and-a-half page paragraph where the point of view shifts seamlessly from Thanh to Harper and back to Thahn, we begin to comprehend the dark side that hides within every wish that’s ever been made—the what-if’s of making one choice over another. Thanh is overwhelmed with the implications of all his possible wishes concerning his unborn baby. It seems dangerous to him to make demands, to choose any wish at all. But just as he throws his piece of shell in the pond a wish rises up, involuntarily, and he is stuck with it. Harper, for his part, doesn’t believe in wishes.
This story’s ending leaps ahead in time, spanning several years of Thanh and Harper’s lives and was my favorite ending of the collection.
In “The New Boyfriend,” a modern approach to the traditional fairy tale prince charming trope, Link explores the theme of wishes and jealousy and the downside of getting what you wish for within the context of the angsty longing of high school girls. More than anything Immy wants a Ghost Boyfriend. Ainslie, Immy’s best friend, has all the things Immy wants—a Vampire Boyfriend, a Werewolf Boyfriend and then, at Ainslie’s birthday party Immy has to watch Ainslie unwrap the impossible-to-get Ghost Boyfriend.
Immy had a real boyfriend, Justin, but he isn’t perfect like Ainslie’s Boyfriends and Immy breaks up with him. Another friend, Elin, wants to date the real boy, Justin. The fourth in the group, Sky, seems happily fulfilled by her bottles of homemade absinthe. But no one wishes they had Ainslie’s mother, especially Ainslie.
Even while Immy compares Justin to the Boyfriends and finds him lacking, she also comments on the many small annoyances of interacting with something that isn’t real. Link’s wit comes through in this description of the Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends’ tendencies:
Immy executes a convoluted machination to get her prince, kidnapping Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend, Mint, and hiding him in a storage unit. In Mint she finds everything she’d hoped for, even while overlooking the little problems of his clichéd and doltish answers to her questions, the fake feeling of the skin of his hand, his lack of smell save for an accumulating mustiness he picks up from the storage space. In the end, in a surprising twist, it is not Mint’s lack of realness but the way in which he is real that causes Immy’s heart’s desire to go ultimately unfulfilled.
The last story of the collection, “Light,” is set in the Florida Keys in an alternate world where there are multiple pocket universes (think Land of Oz) where people go to vacation or retire or to serve sentences as dissidents. The normal rules of the regular world are breaking down—women are giving birth to rabbits, multitudes of inexplicable sleeping people are discovered by hikers and cavers and are being stored in warehouses, and people who are born with no shadow can buy an affordable prosthetic at the local drugstore.
The narrator, Lindsey, was born with two shadows after her mother traveled to a pocket universe when she was pregnant. Lindsey’s second shadow was never cut away and as a result Lindsey’s slightly less real, twin brother, Alan, came into existence. People with two shadows are known to get in trouble and bring disaster wherever they go. They are supposed to grow up unhappy. Alan conforms to this expectation, but Lindsey doesn’t or rather, claims not to. Alan can’t seem to stay employed, but Lindsey insists that she likes her job managing a warehouse full of sleeping people. She states that she had a happy childhood and has a good life now. But her husband, a seven foot, green-skinned guy she met in a pocket universe has left her, and her heart’s desire seems to extend only to steady refills of her Rum and Rum and Coke and a different man in her bed each night.
But then Alan shows up after failing at another job, and Lindsey’s well-ordered life becomes a chaos of binge drinking and strange things residing in her bathtub including iguanas, bloodied lovers and one of the sleepers who could be Lindsey’s doppelganger.
It’s not until a hurricane hits the Keys and transports Lindsey’s house to the threshold of an Oz-like (minus the Munchkins) pocket universe that Lindsey finally reveals her secret heart’s desire:
Unlike Dorothy, Lindsey doesn’t adhere to the “there’s no place like home” philosophy. She packs a backpack with gin and soup and, along with an iguana (Toto!), advances confidently into this new universe hoping someone has had the sense to open a bar.