Book Review: Things I Want Back From You by Elizabeth Stix

May 28, 2024

The characters in Elizabeth Stix’s debut collection, Things I Want Back From You, oscillate between two poles: distance and connection, hope and turmoil, people who are “waiting for the right time to tell them all about it, but the right time never came.” Across 20 linked stories set in the fictional Bay-area city of San Encanto, Stix explores the lives of deeply flawed characters that feel startlingly familiar: the frenzied future life coach, the washed-up middle aged man stuck in a series of bad decisions, the daughter who recognizes that she and her aging mother are more similar than she first believed. That sense of familiarity is rooted in Stix’s ability to craft compelling personas that read like real people—people who mourn, cheat on their partners, and off-handedly confess to hitting people with their car (but, in her defense, “I barely made contact with her and honestly I’m not sure the car even touched her. The whole ‘falling down’ thing was totally over the top on her part.”)

The stories in Things I Want Back From You repeatedly return to the concept of attempting to move forward when life continues to wear one down. In “Safekeeping,” Abby’s encounter with a man coping with his wife’s suicide attempt helps bridge her relationship with her mother Betty. “Sleeping Giants in the Daylight” follows Elaine, a woman left adrift after a breakup who must learn to find her footing. “Acorn,” one of the collection’s few pieces that dip into magical realism, features a man grieving his mother’s death—and then dealing with her reappearance as a growth on his shoulder.

Stix’s prose is in conversation with Deborah Eisenberg and Karen Russell: precise, surprising, and off-handedly hilarious, even as the stories take different narrative forms, ranging from a list of requested items to a crossing guard’s log of events across one day. A few characters are one-offs, but there is a recurring cast that spans the collection’s three parts, primarily following the Zinger family fracturing, growing older, and searching for connection. The collection’s third part is its strongest because it leans more heavily into wrapping up the Zinger storyline. In “Migration,” Robert’s hike with his daughter also allows him to navigate their fraught relationship. He savors the knowledge that she doesn’t want him to go on a business trip: “After so many years of being in the doghouse with her at every turn, her fretfulness was an unexpected glory.”

However, it’s not always clear what connects the stories in parts one and two in terms of themes or timelines, and several feel like they’re a few beats short of being entirely complete; “Alice,” an unsettling story about a brother helping to extract a worm from his sister’s belly, is more of a slice-of-life than a complete narrative because these characters remain largely unchanged and unchallenged from beginning to end (aside from the worm living in the sister’s stomach). “Giuseppe and Emiline,” another piece that dips into magical realism, follows the plight of a woman whose husband expands and floats like a hot air balloon—but while their world is fully realized, the story lacks any climax or tension (which is ironic, given the balloon). Still, there are standout stories in parts one and two. “Party at the End of the World,” Betty’s story, is stellar from start to finish and features the memorable lines: “All the years of asking for permission to exist, over and over and over, without realizing she was talking only to herself. She saw it all in the undulating orbs of Robert’s bottom.” And yet, many of the stories function largely as snapshots into this corner of San Encanto—my one complaint about an otherwise well-formed and immersive collection.

Despite these hiccups, the characters that inhabit San Encanto are compulsively readable, especially when their narratives become deeply observational. There’s a scene in “Resurrection Man” when Ollie, a magician, goes grocery shopping. “Tonight Ollie sees magic everywhere. Chakra candles offering money, love, health, confidence. Fake meat parading as real meat. The illusion of flesh. People want so badly to believe.” The people that inhabit this world also want to believe—that they have a purpose, that their wants will be requited, and that they will find that sense of connection they so sorely lack. Maybe that’s what marks this collection feel so true to life: like many of us, these characters just want a second chance.

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Publication date: May 24, 2024

by Rebecca Parades

Rebecca Paredes is a writer from Lake Elsinore, California, where the IHOP is located next to the graveyard. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Barren Magazine, Hunger Mountain Review, Mosaic, and other publications. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University and is currently working on a linked collection of short stories inspired by her hometown.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved