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We Want What We Want

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A collection of glittering, surprising, darkly funny stories of people testing the boundaries of their lives, from the celebrated author of Dual Citizens.

In the mordantly funny Money, Geography, Youth, Vanessa arrives home from a gap year volunteering in Ghana to find that her father is engaged to her childhood best friend. Unable to reconcile the girl she went to dances with in the eighth grade and the woman in her father's bed, Vanessa turns to a different old friendship for her own, unique diversion.

In the subversive The Brooks Brothers Guru, Amanda drives to upstate New York to rescue her gawky cousin from a cult, only to discover clean-cut, well-dressed men living in a beautiful home, discussing the classics, and drinking sophisticated cocktails, moving her to wonder what freedoms she might willingly trade away for a life of such elegant comfort.

And in The Universal Particular, Tamar welcomes her husband's young stepcousin into their home, imagining they are saving this young woman from Somalia by way of Stockholm, only to find their cool suburban life of potlucks and air-conditioning knocked askew in ways they cannot quite understand.

Populated with imperfect families, burned potential, and inescapable old flames, the thirteen stories in We Want What We Want are, each one, diamond-sharp--sparkling with pain, humor, and beauty.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published July 27, 2021

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About the author

Alix Ohlin

20 books212 followers
Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person, a novel; Babylon and Other Stories; and Signs and Wonders, a story collection. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 110 reviews
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews595 followers
May 6, 2021
From his tone she guesses this is a joke, though she has no idea why. She could ask, but doesn’t. He leans back against the counter, crossing his feet. “Schopenhauer knew that human desire caused pain and difficulty in the world, but our will is intractable. We want what we want. So what do we do about this? How do we find relief?” He pours them each another shot. “The only sublimation is through the aesthetic. Through the appreciation of art.” ~ The Brooks Brothers Guru

The thirteen short stories in We Want What We Want seem to primarily examine this idea of thwarted desire as being the source of pain in the world. Each story contrasts people in opposite situations — married vs single, money vs none, settled vs free — and while many of the characters don’t seem to be entirely happy in their own lives, they don’t necessarily envy the people who made different choices; it’s not the circumstances here but the craving for some outer unknown that upends us. With some darkly funny scenes and some scenes that startle with their relatable humanity, Alix Ohlin has crafted a strong collection here; a little samey-same when read all together, nothing that totally mesmerised me, but a solid read with many well-observed moments nonetheless. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

Brief synopsis and key quote from each story:

The Point of No Return
The story of a long term female friendship: from casual besties to infrequent correspondents, to something both less and more.

Sometimes she saw her life as a tender thing that was separate from herself, a tiny animal she had happened upon by chance one day and decided to raise. It was terrifying to think how small it was, how wild, how easily she could fit it in the palm of her hand.

Two middle-aged sisters, nearing the breaking point of a brief visit, join forces when they happen upon the meth-snorting drug dealer who had run away with the daughter of one of them.

If you could have seen her as a little girl, my Rosie, then you would know what happiness looks like. She laughed all the time. Her bed was piled so high with stuffed animals you couldn’t even see the blankets, but Rose insisted on taking each of the animals into bed with her, so none of them would be lonely. I still don’t know how she went from that little girl to the skinny teenager who skipped school and spiked her hair and pierced her tongue and lower lip and who just laughed at me when I told her the truth — “ You’re going nowhere, Rose ” — and who grabbed my wrist and twisted it until my tears came and said, “You’re nowhere, Mom, you’re the definition of it,” and who marched out of the house as she had a hundred times before during that long bad year, only instead of coming back at three in the morning, or the next day, she never came back at all.

The Universal Particular
The cracks in one couple’s marriage are exposed when the husband invites a distant relative to spend the summer with them.

Tamar watched Albert quiz Aziza about the creepy neighbor, what he’d said and done, while the girl grew first flustered, then sullen. Albert never knows when he’s gone too far, doesn’t understand that he’s acting less like a protective patriarch than his own brand of creep.

Risk Management
An older woman accepts a dinner invitation from a young colleague and learns more (and especially more about herself) than she had counted on.

We’d never socialized outside of work. In fact I didn’t socialize with anyone from work, even Margaret, who was close to my age and lived in my neighborhood and whose cats I took care of when she went to visit her aunt in Nanaimo for two weeks every July. I liked everyone fine, but forty hours a week is already a lot of time to spend with people who’ve entered your life by happenstance.

Money, Geography, Youth
What would you do if you came back from a gap year of volunteering in Ghana and discovered your father was engaged to your best friend?

The explanations tumbled out of her father and her friend, each of them completing each other’s sentences, her father’s large hands slapping the table every so often gently, keen to touch Kelsey’s shoulder or hand but holding back, for Vanessa’s sake, she could tell. Kelsey had started out working as an intern, become a trusted advisor, and somewhere along the way graduated to girlfriend. They’d kept the relationship secret, because they wanted to tell Vanessa first, and doing it long distance didn’t feel right. But now they were happy, happiness spilled from them, sloshed like liquid from a drunk person’s glass.

The Woman I Knew
Imagine finding out that your college roommate/BFFL is the biological daughter of your favourite author, and that she never mentioned the fact.

Of course I’d told Iris how much the book had meant to me. In all our time together, there was nothing of myself — my earnestness, my confusion, my desire to have a different life than my parents’, without any idea of what that might look like, or who I might have to be to inhabit it — that I had held back from her. I may even have talked about it while we were in bed together. It was impossible to me that she could have withheld this information.

Something About Love
A recent widower starts a relationship with a divorced woman and, somehow, becomes close friends with her ex.

Lewis had worried that Vicky wouldn’t approve, but she only waved her hand and said, “Go with God.” The children loved that he was friends with Stan. They called Wednesdays “Dads Night.” “The dads are going out!” they said. Otherwise they called him Lewis, not dad, and hearing this made Lewis feel warm, a warmth that was part shame, because it did not yet seem deserved.

A woman reflects on her life when her current and former girlfriends cross paths at a funeral.

In my memory all of her was gleaming. She tried to take the dart from me and I wouldn’t give it until she told me her name. When I let go, my palm was pricked with blood. We live together now in Cat’s condo with a dachshund named Murray who has hip dysplasia and a terrible personality and whose presence in our lives is my greatest regret. I know I’m lucky to have such a manageable regret. I’m lucky in a lot of ways.

The Brooks Brothers Guru
A young woman goes on a road trip to check on a cousin who has joined some kind of academy — or is it a cult? Either way, it may be what’s lacking in her own life.

The strain of her two desires — to seek the connection and to reject it — paralyzes her, and she lies rigid, every muscle tensed. If she were to speak, she would dissolve, or break in half.

The Detectives
An accident redefines two sisters’ relationship.

I knew Bobby’s. It was a sad diner out on the highway where Nicole and I used to go when we were teenagers. We’d eat pie and flirt with middleaged men and then leave suddenly, knowing they’d settle the bill. We thought we were so dangerous. We thought being girls was such a game.

Service Intelligence
This one ends with a gut punch: A young college dropout comes to understand her neighbour when they connect over suppressed rage.

Once Karen asked me about my friends, and I said I had lots but not many I liked, and she asked how I could have friends I didn’t really like and I said, “I’m sorry, have you ever been around girls?” and she laughed in a tone that made us both feel sad.

You can’t be damaged by the family (or the species, class, or phylum) you don’t know.

He prayed that Phoebe would never come back, never try to take the baby from him, that life in their apartment had been so hellish she wouldn’t want a single reminder of it, even one composed of her own flesh and blood. To his endless surprise and gratitude, these prayers had been answered.

Nights Back Then
Circling back to Schopenhauer and the title quote, perhaps the pain of thwarted desire can only be relieved through art.

The person I was really looking for, of course, was Dmitri — because who else would share my memory, who else would understand? If he’d been in the room I would have rushed into his arms and begged him to forgive me for having driven him away. But he wasn’t. I had to keep to myself the strangeness of seeing those paintings, so thick and dense with luster, reminding me how little and how much can last.
Profile Image for Rhea Tregebov.
Author 30 books43 followers
April 14, 2023
Alix Ohlin is an extraordinary writer, and I think the short story is the genre she excels in, admirable though her novels are. This is a flawless collection, each story equally fascinating and crafted, each very different. I have to say my favourite is "Something About Love" but it is hard to pick favourites amid so many gems.
Profile Image for Cherise Wolas.
Author 2 books255 followers
October 4, 2021
A rich and engrossing collection of nuanced stories that explore desire and grief, alienation and loss, through finely drawn and often eclectic characters. There are runaway mothers, good fathers, ex-lovers, estranged husbands, young women raising themselves. Closure is impossible for these characters in their aching plights leavened by irony, but they try.
Profile Image for sofia.
34 reviews
May 8, 2023
for me these stories revolved around themes of yearning desires, from wholesome to romantic. about how individuals would go about quenching those desires or placating themselves for not fulfilling them. I found recurring narratives of “what could have been” or “if only,” big fan.
Profile Image for Mary Coder.
86 reviews14 followers
August 5, 2021
THANK YOU KNOPF PUBLISHING/PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE for a copy of "We Want What We Want" Stories by Alix Ohlin. This was an interesting collection of stories. To me the main theme in each was irony and how much of it pervades the lives of the characters. The different ideas were cleverly displayed in each such as single and married, rich and poor, cultured and raw,boundaries versus freedom,you get the idea. Each was told in a way that it could be relatable to the reader by giving cause to picture what you would do or how would I feel in these circumstances. There was the occasional laugh as well as reason to tear up a bit as well as a couple of unexpected surprises strewn throughout the book. All in all it was a good read although not one that I would have thought of selecting for myself. The writing by itself I would probably give a three star rating but the interesting characters merited a final four stars in my humble opinion.
Profile Image for Mark Richardson.
Author 3 books92 followers
March 11, 2023
I love this collection. Ohlin is a classical storyteller. She doesn’t resort to tricks or gimmicks, just unspools gripping stories that made me eager to turn the page. The stories tend to focus on a crucial stretch of a character’s life but are fleshed out with the appropriate amount of backstory (and snapshots into the future) to instill a novel-like feeling to the reading experience. Ohlin excels at nailing the ending, steering the reader in unexpected directions, and usually leaving the things open ended, just like real life.

I read a lot of short stories. With many, I appreciate the artistry. That’s true with Ohlin’s work as well, but more importantly, I get joy out of the reading experience. She holds my attention from sentence to sentence.
Profile Image for Robyn.
299 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2022
I very much enjoyed this, makes me want to write a collection of short stories.
Profile Image for Virginia.
991 reviews117 followers
November 12, 2021
I first read Mulvany’s book, The Woman I Knew, when I was thirteen years old, an impressionable age. Although I should say I was impressionable at all ages, especially where books were concerned. I wanted books to press themselves upon my body and mind, to change me in every way a person could be changed.
There are, amazingly, no characters in this book: they are all real, breathing people, with backstories or no backstories, and futures, or no futures. I enjoyed every one of them and actually felt closely related to a few. I also read and finished every story. I’ve been able to do that with only one other writer, Alice Munro, so this collection came as a complete surprise to me. These were all emotionally satisfying and moving, and every one had a little Easter egg of joy or angst or grief to savour. I usually complain loudly about Canadian writers who don’t highlight Canadian settings, and there were few to none identifiable here, but many of Ohlin's people seem to think and react in an innately Canadian way. Or at least in a way I could relate closely to.

**I do agree with another poster that the story FMK served up an upsetting picture of hospice workers, and I wish it had been handled differently and that it came with a warning to readers who currently have, or have had, someone in hospice. It was an uncomfortable read for me.

Profile Image for Anna D..
22 reviews
July 1, 2023
The first one interested me. "Taxonomy" was grating— listing species classifications does not qualify as a plot device.
Profile Image for Stephanie B.
130 reviews27 followers
February 22, 2022
A collection of 13 short stories. Some worked better than others for me, but I was most impressed by how each of them very perfectly reflect the title in the most unexpected ways. What is life without desire? It’s the crux of everything, and I really enjoyed how these stories explore that idea in often unusual ways.

The best ones really capture the mundanity, depression and overall hopelessness of contemporary life in darkly humorous ways. There were some stellar lines and sometimes amazing insights to an inner life.

The last story (“Nights Back Then”) was my favorite- perfectly complete, yet entirely wistful.

I read these stories in breaks between other books so apologies for the vague notes, I'm sure this deserves more attention. She’s definitely a talented writer and I’m interested in checking out her other works.
Profile Image for Kate.
844 reviews50 followers
August 22, 2021
"Well, thanks, but it wasn't exactly a life cut short. A life cut long, if you will. The way we'd all like to go." "Right," I said. I was thinking that there was no way anyone wanted to go, that no matter the circumstances, each of us is ripped with violence from the fabric of the living. That's why Cat is so anxious at funerals. She can make it easy as possible for a person, but a service brings out all the calculus that extends beyond the body, everything that refuses to her control. "How'd you get into the death biz anyway?" Tony asked Cat. "Sorry if that sounds bad, death biz. I'm an insurance adjuster myself, so I face disaster ratios all day long. You get a certain skin." Cat said nothing.
Ohlin's short fiction hit me in all the right ways. These 13 glowing stories each different from the last were full of characters that were flawed with the pain and sting of their own realities, pushing on the edge of their existence, wanting something just out of their grasp. Ohlin's hypnotic prose pulled me in with the first story about two female friends who through the years, lose and regain touch, until the one is completely helpless and the other steps up in an unprecedented way that no one else was able to. I was hooked from there! Her empathetic characters shined throughout. Highly recommend! Short stories have been my favorite thing to read this year and this is one of the best yet! I loved Ohlin's last novel too Duel Citizens but with this collection I am a certified fan! I am looking forward to reading her other works.

Big thanks to @houseofanansi for sending me this one in exchange for an honest review. For more of my book content check out https://www.instagram.com/bookalong
Profile Image for Coleman Warner.
33 reviews
March 16, 2023

This is one of the first books that’s managed to bring a collection of tears to my eyes in some time. It is touching in the simplicity of its language that elevates the complex characters in these stories. They’re all about tales of family and friendship and romance, yet finds ways to explore the strangers and strangeness in the acceptance of our lives.

Perhaps the only qualm I have with these stories is they follow much of the same themes very closely, and sometimes the characters aren’t as memorable because you’ve just read a story very similar to it a few pages ago. I don’t blame the author for this, but it did distract from the reading experience of this book.

Nonetheless, this book was still very moving, and is a definite recommendation for me.
Profile Image for Deborah.
961 reviews24 followers
August 16, 2021
A collection of 13 sharply observed short stories exploring imperfect families, the irresistible allure of old flames and new loves, and broken potential. Imagine returning from a gap year volunteering in Africa to discover your best friend since childhood has moved in with your widowed father. Or how do you deal with a rescue mission to extract the cousin you haven’t seen in 15 years from the clutches of a charismatic guru—isn’t this a cult?—when your visit leads you to long for what the guru seems to be offering? Or the missed connections between a suburban midwestern husband and the orphaned Somali stepcousin he invites to visit? Thought-provoking and darkly funny.
Profile Image for Emily.
296 reviews7 followers
November 21, 2021
A fantastic short story collection. I found these stories to be the perfect length and all equally captivating.
Profile Image for Shannon.
120 reviews
January 16, 2022
Enjoyed these short stories! A bit dark & at times funny. Looking forward to reading more of Ohlin’s shorts.
Profile Image for andrew y.
1,076 reviews11 followers
April 3, 2022
Keeping up the tradition of all short story collections, of these thirteen there was one transcendent, two fascinating, two inscrutable. This is a very good ratio.
Profile Image for Brayden Ross.
39 reviews1 follower
November 23, 2021
Alix Ohlin never disappoints and these stories continue that trend. I’d recommend to anyone who loves stories really human stories
Profile Image for Lani Neumann.
94 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2023
I loved this collection of short stories by Alix Ohlin so much.

There are poignant stories and stories that literally made me laugh out loud in parts. The title is so perfect and applies so aptly to the characters she writes - and really to all of us, yes?

Delightful, thought provoking, page turning, great writing. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Katia.
45 reviews2 followers
September 16, 2021
in the beginning i thought this was going to be stories about the sadness and sterility of suburban life. mid way through, i think this might be one of the strongest short story collections i’ve encountered. “Money, Geography, Youth;” “FMK;” “Something About Love” are all standouts.

very painful and tender writing
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 2 books3 followers
October 8, 2021
No one is living the life they envisioned in these stories--but none of the characters give regret more than a passing thought. Often caught in the midst of a stasis, Ohlin's characters are prickly, selfish, and often very, very angry. But they're also confronted with the failures of both their own lives and those of the people around them.

The stories are also very funny.

There's something remarkable about a writer who can make an upstate New York cult seem like a possible opportunity for self improvement while making volunteering in Africa seem like an ill-advised whim. (And that is a compliment of the highest order.) There aren't any easy answers for these characters, but they often find the grace to accept what is inevitable.
Profile Image for Sheela Lal.
185 reviews8 followers
June 22, 2022
The writing is beautiful but the stories and characters seem to bleed into each other hanging onto a WASPy sentiment of internalizing feelings instead of asking for help or love. It was tiresome to read after a few chapters.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
526 reviews11 followers
September 20, 2021
The stories in this collection are all complex. Ohlin manages to create a whole world, a history, within the confines of a story. My favorites were "The Woman I Knew" and "Service Intelligence." "The Woman I Knew" is told from the perspective of a young woman, whose name we never learn. She tells us about a book that was incredibly important to her, the way books one reads in early adolescence can be. It's also about her relationship with her college roommate, Iris, a high-functioning drug addict. These two themes come together in a surprising twist, and the book's meaning for her also changes. That resonated with me, as I've often found that a book I loved at 13 or 15 I find unreadable as an adult. "Nobody's Boy," for example, or "Look Homeward, Angel."

"Service Intelligence" begins with a classic philosophical conundrum, the trolley problem. It poses the question of whether it would be ethically permissible, or even required, to divert a trolley headed for a track on which there are five people, if you could do that only by switching its path to a track where it would kill one. One death is better than five, but does it make a difference that in one case you would be allowing five deaths, but in the other, you would be causing one? The narrator, Cassie Kranz, talks about a variation of the original trolley problem, in which you can stop the train hurtling down the path toward the five people only by shoving a very fat man off a cliff in front of the train. The description of how the class gets derailed by discussing whether the example is "fatist," and whether fat people are to blame for not eating right, and whether the trolley company was negligent in maintaining the tracks, is hilarious.
Profile Image for Enid Wray.
941 reviews34 followers
August 11, 2021
I am grinding to a hard stop on page 116 (digital edition)... and it really is a shame as I was quite enjoying this collection of stories.
And I will admit, I’ve only ever struggled with Ms. Ohlin’s writing before… it’s just never quite spoken to me. This was looking like it was going to be the first title of hers that I hadn’t bailed on… Oh dear…

So why the hard stop? I am a long time volunteer at a residential hospice. Currently I am on a contract as the Executive Assistant at the same hospice that I volunteer at. I did not know what the title of this story - FMK - meant… but on p116 I find out… and I cannot read anymore.

First what happens at hospice, stays at hospice. Anyone and everyone who works at a hospice is subject to all manner of patient privacy ‘constraints.’ I was prepared to go along with a partner knowing that someone had massaged a resident’s feet. But I cannot look past that a group of hospice employees would go out to a bar and engage in this game of FMK invoking the names of their dying patients. Clearly the author either didn’t do any research into palliative care, or she just didn’t care. The kind of person who goes into palliative work would never do this… and if they did and anyone found out, it would be a fireable offense… not just highly offensive!

And that an author would use this as a plot point in a story? Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame on the author. Shame on the editor. Shame on the publisher.

Trust me when I say that I will never ever again even consider to pick up a title by Ms. Ohlin. This is an unforgivable sin.
Profile Image for chasingholden.
247 reviews46 followers
August 24, 2021
We Want What We Want is an interesting collection of short stories. Alix Ohlin is a wonderful author, and I jumped at the chance to read the latest. The stories in this volume are all darkly hilarious, expecially if you have a bit of a twisted sense of humor and a love of irony, such as myself. All centered around the recurring theme of unfufilled desire leadng to pain and ruined lives, with each story featuring one character who wants one thing such as love but failing miserably, meanwhile we hear about a semi-close character whom has actually acheived the original desire, inspiring more pain and jealousy and hatred than what was there before.

This theme is an every day thing for the majority of society, we can't get everything we want so theres always some desire or dream that remains unfulfilled; Meanwhile we are bombarded with social media profiles full of people living our dream. While thats not a great feeling, this collection proves that if you step far enough back there is something funny about how things turned out.

I had very high hopes for this collection and while all the stories were decent, none of them really jumped out or imprinted in my thoughts, making We Want What We Want a decent read, but nothing to write home about either.

Thank you to Netgalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing a digital copy of this book in exhcange for my honest opinion.
Profile Image for Carly-Ann | carlyisreading.
47 reviews17 followers
August 28, 2021
More than stories, the thirteen pieces contained within We Want What We Want, are fragile, private slices of life. In some cases, the events span several years, but each still speaks to the significance of a tiny moment, one small action, and the longstanding impact that even the most minor interaction can have.

Ohlin’s greatest strength is in her ability to write relationships. I don’t mean the simple, outward descriptions of how one person is connected to another, but the sharp edges and deep tensions that exist within those connections for sometimes inexplicable (and sometimes very explicable) reasons.

My favourites were Risk Management, a story about the barriers we nurture between ourselves and others and how attachments will find their own ways to overcome them, Something About Love which chronicles the expansion that a blended family requires and the twists and turns that can result, and Nights Back Then, detailing a sequence of decisions made with the heart and consequences that are suffered as a result of them.

Thank you to Netgalley and House of Anansi Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my review. We Want What We Want is now available from your favourite local book seller.
Profile Image for Stephanie Perry.
11 reviews2 followers
June 3, 2023
To be very frank, only one story stayed with me from this collection.

The premise of the book drew me in but the delivery was so bland. There wasn't anything special about any of it. I found myself thinking "Why is any of this worth writing about? Why is this a story?"

The only memorable story for me involved a woman going to an upstate New York estate to visit her brother, who had been living on a commune in a cult. The problem is, the cult turns out to be basically a healthy living community of folks who want to live simply. We're to question if a cult is always bad, or if cults can be beneficial. That and honestly, this seemed like a story of a white woman just not minding her damn business and instead of "saving someone" in this case her brother, she proves to be disruptive and sours the whole dynamic. Very Karen-esque.

That was it. there was one other story I vaguely remember about a teenage girl finding a construction worker at her families pool hot. It was about as interesting as a Gap commercial during Back to School season. The entire book just felt like white people angsting unnecessarily, with nary a problem in sight.

I wouldn't recommend this one at all.

Displaying 1 - 30 of 110 reviews

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