Each story makes space for reflection more than it makes claims — and every page flutters with anxiety so thorough I sometimes had to stand up and walk around before resuming my reading. Perpendicular to its gender play are questions of consent, labor, the warp and weft of gift and debt, all the things we give to and take from one another, especially property and pain ... These stories are full of suffocating generosity, aggression so passive it’s like breathing splinter. There’s not a single weak link in the cat’s-breath chain of this collection — only an initial shock at what sort of experience the book is ... It may ruin tea for you, or teach you something of how not to be a terrible person. Either way, it’s incredible.
What makes Ortberg’s everyday horrors truly different is that they map questions onto these old stories instead of answers ... Every story in The Merry Spinster is told with a whimsy and a lightness of touch that makes their painful questions, and still more painful non-answers, palatable. Having finished the book, I’m convinced there’s no better way to discuss non-truths than through a host of genres—fairy tales, prayers, what have you—that are known for being stodgily moral and unambiguous ... The Merry Spinster is an unnerving book, a familiar one, and a delightful one. It changes and transforms stories that we may hold dear. That convergence of contradictions is very much what makes it great.
Ortberg has none of the gory lushness of Angela Cartner, but something more evil, antic, and modern, not to mention hyperliterate ... 'The Rabbit' is a dark, delicious joy: a funny and genuinely eerie adaptation that quickly spirals into a parable about possession and what happens to love in a power asymmetry. Not every story has that wonderful, wicked pull, but the two or three that do manage to articulate some very real aspect of human relationships and dependency ... One of The Merry Spinster's sharpest delights is the way fairy tale roles — wife, princess, youngest daughter, husband, king — are all detached from gender, so we are able to see them more clearly as distinct tropes.