Stories that Teach: “A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt—Discussed by Brandon Williams

April 24, 2024

When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.


In “A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt, from The New Yorker, we meet an unnamed woman struggling with the loss of identity that has come from motherhood. Moreover, her husband is gone, which she discovers (rediscovers?) when she hears, late one night, a knock on the house door. Coming downstairs, she finds that the knock was actually by her husband, begging to return home, and she must make a decision; she has to decide whether he will ever be able to see her as she is, whether he will accept the new reality in which she exists, and even whether she is able to trust him (or, to a certain extent), anyone.

The Basics

This story is written in first person present tense. For much of the piece, it has an almost essayistic tone, with a reminiscing narrator wandering through small slices of her life that she views as proving her case of having lost identity—this is an issue, these various vignettes reveal, of womanhood, of motherhood, of class, of social status, and of age. Framed as argument, we readers spend much of the piece watching the events and coming to understand the mindset of this character; the physical plot of the story shows up fairly late in the story and is characterized by purposeful obfuscation and confusion (does her husband exist? Was he ever there? Did he knock or not? Is he there at the end?). The setting of the piece is to a large extent barebones—other than the fact that we’re close enough to civilization to interact with people, and her attempt to interest her husband by having him check her for ticks being kneecapped by there being “no Lyme disease in California,” place doesn’t especially matter to this world. The timeframe of the story is quite limited; for as wide-ranging as her thoughts are, the story takes place over a single night, and potentially a much shorter time: She is awake with her thoughts, hears a man cough, and eventually goes downstairs to check. At the simplest level of story craft, these choices are all very straightforward.

But beyond those very basic literary elements, there are so many interesting techniques utilized in this piece. The introductory section, for instance, is a conversation between two characters who are neither named nor seen (we can eventually suss them out as the narrator and Sam, her husband, but not quickly), and it is almost entirely dialogue, with little interiority save for the final paragraph of that section and absolutely no time markers whatsoever. Elements of that introduction—the coyote, the almost-but-absolutely-not throwaway line “Really”, and the questioning and intentional rebuilding of reality itself—are essential to the overall story, of course, but perhaps more importantly the opening places us in the liminal space this story claims as its own, where time is all-encompassing, reality both does and does not exist, and actual events in the story exist beside impossibilities and are given the same sincerity.

My favorite example of this: “The list of potential reasons that my husband and I no longer have sex wakes me up at night.” We get a list of five possibilities, ranging from “the wildest, craziest reason” of her husband only existing in her imagination to the final reason which “comes almost as a relief” that her husband may be cheating on her. The question of ridiculousness here is an interesting one, as the first option, the most on-its-face nonsense reason, ultimately reveals itself to be the most reasonable option based on the information we’re presented, and the option given as the most relief-building is one that has ultimately would have her most heavily judged in either direction. The story places its fingers on the scale to hide that the story has revealed the inciting incident, and then uses the strangeness of the ensuing options to keep us from thinking too heavily on a first read about exactly what we already could have known. I love that bait-and-switch, and it’s only played so effectively by the fact that the other concocted reasons—her potential ugliness, her husband possibly molesting their children—work extremely well to push us away from that first reason, which as we read further in the piece seems to have explained the plot almost entirely.

Character, and Not

By most definitions, this is a character-driven story. A majority, and possibly the entirety, of the story takes place in the mental landscape of our main character; she is reminiscing, she is soliloquizing, she is looking at the world and quite literally trying to determine what is and is not real. We follow her through every moment we see, and the only thing she (and ostensible we) can trust is her own running monologue. All of these push us to a piece that we’d normally consider a character study; we’re reading the story to learn of her, reading the story to see how she reacts.

And yet, the entire focus of this piece revolves around her innate un-knowability. The person she was no longer exists, and the person who has replaced that self is a stereotype—society has deemed her to be a mother, and that is all she is. Pairing that with her own uncertainty in reality—literally, “I want you to agree that there is more than one reality,” she says, as well as in that same conversation, “I want you to agree that if I think it, if I feel it, it is real”—puts us in this fascinating place where we are watching her attempt to divine herself while as readers we’re unable to trust anything we’re presented so that we can’t know her regardless of whether she knows herself or not. This is compounded and twisted even one layer further by the argument at the heart of this piece that the world will not allow her to be anything other than the stereotypes she embodies. Metatextually, then, there is an implicit condemnation of us as readers if we don’t follow along as she is—like her husband Sam, who is woken up in the middle of the night and told that if she decides he’s an asshole then he must be one—what right do we have to ask more of her than she is willing, or perhaps capable, to provide?

As a result, we know next to nothing about our main character, even with all the detail she gives us. This is somewhat stunning in a piece this long and this deeply focused on the self. Even her name is hidden from us (although I’m a fairly firm believer that the husband’s name being the first name of the author is probably essential to a deeper understanding of this piece, and I’m still waiting for someone smarter than me to explain that part to me). But, the story can be seen to argue, of course we can’t see anything of her; we as a society aren’t able to look far enough to see her anyway, and so have worn down the reality of that larger existence, even now that she has found through telling her own story a way to be seen on that larger level.


The plot on an active level doesn’t start until a significant portion through this story. We’re given the occasional hint of the main conflict previously—one being the moment I quoted as our narrator’s attempting to figure out why she and her husband no longer have sex—but much of the early beats of the story are argumentative. Actively, physically, the story eventually reveals itself to be about hearing a noise outside and trying to determine who made it, whether there is danger, and then whether or not to accept the danger that comes even after you know who made the noise. She goes downstairs, she has a conversation with the man who coughed—who happens to be her husband Sam, who was never actually in bed with her and who she never actually told to go find the coughing man outside because he was the one who coughed originally, so, uh, do with that construction of reality as you will—and ultimately is forced to acknowledge the fact that she had previously kicked Sam out. That means that she was previously afraid of him, enough to make him leave (remember earlier, when she said that was the most ridiculous of possible reasons Sam might no longer be having sex with her, because he no longer existed in this space with her) which brings us back to this questioning of her own vision of reality. Is he a danger to her because he’s a danger in the way that men are a danger to women in almost any situation, or is he a danger because she’s decided he’s a danger and she has the ability to create reality? And, does she have the right to create that reality? Does she not have that right? Is it an inherent right of all people to decide when they are scared? I want to say yes, of course it is, but at the same time that’s a hell of a precedent as she’s already shown in the piece. God, I love this story.

When we talk about plot, and particularly plot in this story, it’s important to point out that we mean both internal and external conflicts. The two almost cannot exist without each other in this piece, which is yet another reason it’s so damn good. There are the actions a character is trying to accomplish, and there are the things with which she is trying to come to terms. And with this piece being so heavily a product of our narrator’s mind, there’s certainly a ton for her to grapple with logically. But even there, the internal concern of the piece isn’t an active conflict until we learn exactly what our narrator is struggling with—the cough and knock on the door which leads her into the question of whether her husband is there, whether she kicked him out and is imagining his existence, and all the rest. Ostensibly, her conflict is whether and how much she still exists now that she has been marked a mother as opposed to a woman, as opposed to a person, but that’s not exactly our main internal conflict because the story treats that as a given, as already lost. Those story sections—from points explicating her desires to the oft-quoted-by-students moment where she’s approached by a potential love interest only to realize that she’s actually been singled out not for her selfhood or her attractiveness or even her availability but instead because she looks motherly and so therefore probably has snacks on her person (most humiliatingly, of course she does), to the anecdote about the writer she knows who lives alone and buys fish, to the story about the grad student trying to fit in by being edgy—all exist in an essay-like manner that by its very nature excludes them from conflict because there is nothing to be challenged. They simply are.

Where we find conflict, then, is in the question of reality. Which, for those keeping score at home, is also perfectly our external conflict, as she tries to decide whether the cough-into-knock is real and whether to open the door and, ultimately, to let her husband in. I’ve talked in these essays many times about how important it is to tie internal and external themes together; this, my friends, is how you do it.

Really? Really.

It is perhaps unfair to say that our narrator is questioning her reality, even though in a very clear sense she is. At the same time, she clearly recognizes the reality into which she’s been placed as a mother, and rebels against that as best she can—there’s an argument within that that her uncertainty as to what’s actually happening with her husband’s disappearance isn’t so much an inability to parse actuality versus non-, but rather an attempt to claim her own space and personhood and interpretation of existence. You know, her own reality.

But there’s one other way to take this. One could also read this story metatextually. Fiction is the making up of reality. Our narrator is in charge of her own narrative, and a metafictionally-inclined reader could perhaps argue that the literary avatar of our narrator is simply engaging in some autofiction/metafiction of her own, playing with narration to craft her own story. This is an especially theoretically pleasing reading of this story to me because of the fact, simply accepted throughout the piece, that the narrator has lost her identity and has no control over the way she is viewed by the world as a result of her (pick any/all): age, gender, status as a mother. Oh yeah, world? Look at all the power she has to define herself. It’s all right here.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this reading comes at the end of that intro section (which once again argues itself into being incredibly essential to any understanding of this piece): “Every real thing started life as an idea. I’ve imagined objects and moments into existence. I’ve made humans.” Yeah. Yeah. Motherhood, writing, the self; she controls it all, and she can invent it all from this narrative point of view.

In conclusion

I often describe this piece as a complicated simple story. There’s a whole lot going on, and like watching a magician’s sleight of hand the reader’s attention is constantly being shifted one way and the other, but on a slow careful reading the piece isn’t nearly as impenetrable as my students swear. It’s just that the questions it asks are ones that require uncertainty, that won’t allow an easy offramp. As with many pieces we’ve now discussed in this series, we find that complication breeds fascination, and what comes across as inscrutable in a first read actually builds to the most powerful revelations.

by Brandon Williams


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