15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
What Elissa Schappell calls the blueprints of girls might also be called anatomies or inner workings. This collection of eight stories delves into teenhood, womanhood, wifehood and motherhood, from the late '70s into today, in order to understand the condition of being female and Gen X. Loosely linked through characters and circumstance, each story takes as its subject a woman in a different stage of life, whether it's college discoveries of self or a mother who still needs to coddle her grown daughter.
The strength in many of Schappell's stories is that her protagonists are never outwardly apologetic about who they are, even if they might have internal struggles with their identities. As a result, they feel real, not like they're trying too hard to be perfect young women. And yet they acknowledge their unconventionality. In "Monsters of the Deep," Heather is perfectly fine having sex with Ross if that's what he wishes; she would just like the television on in the background, please. Paige and Charlotte, in "Elephant," gravitate towards each other precisely because they know they're not as perfect as the other moms at the playground. And Kate of "A Dog Story" is less than certain about whether she's reacting to her miscarriage in the appropriate way.
Two of the strongest stories in BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS are "The Joy of Cooking" and "Aren't You Dead Yet?" The former is first surprising in its protagonist --- the narrator, referred to only as Mommy, is at once sad, regretful and dismissive, and the story is a powerful representation of what happens to familial relationships as children grow older. Beth/Lizzie/B of "Aren't You Dead Yet?" is similarly self-reflective but callous. It's an excellent depiction of how a writer gets her ideas. Where would any short story collection be without one of those?
These are all different women, though many of them know each other. The common thread is in Schappell's own voice, which comes strongly through in each narrative as an introverted, intuitive, smarter-than-she-appears protagonist. Though that distinct voice is a strength of her writing overall, it also serves to weaken the collection, as it's hard to distinguish between narrators as you jump from story to story. When every protagonist is gifted at astute observations about others, and when every protagonist is self-aware almost to a fault, it's hard to believe that they could all have such different experiences.
Schappell is clearly playing with the currently oft-used trope of seemingly disparate stories that slowly reveal a thread of "Oh, they're all connected!", but she does it in a far less annoying or obvious way than other writers or filmmakers have done. These stories are linked because the human experience is linked; what happens in one person's life can influence the choices made by another. This is a well-written addition to the canon of current literary short fiction. Nothing is radical or particularly new in BLUEPRINTS, but it's very good fiction; for a lover of stories, that should be enough.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I'm not sure that the girls in Building Blueprints for Better Girls are necessarily better for their experiences, but they are intensely familiar, as if I had studied their blueprints. As you read, it's hard not to think, Oh, I know her. It's not that a character reminds you of someone you already know, but that they are rendered with such consistent attention to personal identity that you feel you should know them. You expect to run into them on the sidewalk.
The book elevates self-examination to art form. The characters never dwell in melodrama, they never spout grand philosophies. The real revelations, the real tragedies, aren't in the big moments; they exist in the smallest actions, especially interactions, of the characters. The grand events are the kinds of things that carry their own weight with them. There's not much a writer can add, and Schappell wisely uses these life milestones as the framework for her stories, not as the driving force behind them. The result is often small, ordinary scenes that branch out into the larger world through memory, and with this device each scene moves beyond its apparent simplicity. It reminds us of the great complexity of mere existence.
To read this book is to enter the characters' heads, not just knowing their thoughts, but understanding, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree, their psychology. And, like most good books do, it makes you reevaluate your own.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Jill I. Shtulman
- Published on Amazon.com
Poor Holden Caulfield. In Catcher in the Rye, he muses, "Girls. You never know what they're going to think." How right he was! In Elissa Schappell's new short story collection, the old blueprints for Appropriate Female Behavior -- the name of a vintage etiquette manual, 1963 edition -- have all been tossed away. And now the girls and women are forced to muddle through with the new rules: Be yourself but also be what your boyfriend, parents, and girlfriends want you to be as well.
These women are survivors, some only barely, armed with caustic humor to withstand the toughest stuff that life can throw their way. In "A Dog Story," a couple that has long tried to have a baby discover, in a routine examination, that the technician cannot locate the heartbeat. "My husband asked her to keep looking," the wife says, "as if the baby were playing Marco Polo and had swum behind a kidney."
In another story called "Elephant," two women who mouth all the right clichés about how "motherhood matters," finally get real with each other. "She was crying the way mothers learn to do. Her body betrayed nothing. There was no wiping her eyes, or heaving shoulders, no sound at all."
And then there's "Joy of Cooking" - with all its anti-feminist connotations. An anorexic daughter, who believes she's in love for the first time, calls her mother in a panic, cajoling her to walk her through the steps to roasting a chicken for her boyfriend. The story veers from what, at first, seems like a traditional coming-of-age rite of passage - the passing down of menus from any mother to any daughter -- to a dark tale of manipulation, guilt, lack of gratitude, and hidden angers.
Each of the stories tackles a certain female archetype: the slut, the victim, the exhausted new mother, the party girl, and the seemingly infertile woman. At first, the reader settles in, secure and comfortable that she knows where the story is heading - after all, it's been told many times before - but wait! There's something a little "off" about each portrayal. Take Heather school slut, for example, who is involved with a newly trimmed down, former "fat boy." Just as she begins to develop feelings, there is a subtle betrayal and she bites back, aiming to do the utmost emotional damage - and succeeding.
We meet Heather again, in the last story, my personal favorite, "I'm only Going To Tell You This Once." Now a mother, she must confront the reality of her coveted son becoming involved with a young woman Candy, who reminds Heather all too well of herself. In fact, a number of characters are woven into other stories: Charlotte, a girl who left girlhood after being raped, is off stage but very central to another story, where her friend Bender - a self-destructive party girl - is left to deal with the effects of what happened to Charlotte. And we find that Paige, the young mother in "Elephant," is the sister to the anorexic girl in "Joy of Cooking."
This is a fine collection of eight stories for mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and for those who love them. As Heather says in the final story, "...there is no such thing as just a girl."
22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I want to buy 1,000 copies of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and hand them out to random passersby on the streets. I want this book to be read, immediately, by everyone I've ever known or will ever know. This is incredible stuff. Easily the best book I've read this year. Possibly the best book I've ever read.
It is a series of short stories that center around women and the relationships we have with one another, with our lovers, with our spouses, our children, our parents. Most of the stories intersect with another story in some way. There was laughing, there was crying. There was one particular 8 page section that I had to read out of the corner of my eye because I just couldn't face it head on.
It is brave, and honest, and exceptional in every way. This book made me a wiser person.
Thank you, Goodreads First Reads program for sending me this book and thank you Elissa Schappell for writing it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Laura Zinn Fromm
- Published on Amazon.com
Last weekend, I went with a group of women to a spa in the Berkshires. It was a lovely few days, full of vinyasa and restoration yoga, steam baths, clean towels, locker combinations, salad bars and hot food fixed by other people. My friend and I went for a walk in the snow one sunny afternoon but mostly we stayed inside. The weekend was a gift from my mother, who understands that mothers periodically need to get out from under. I didn't once put on makeup or wear anything but workout gear and sneakers. Though there were some men at this spa, the vibe is definitely women-friendly, with everyone sitting in the dining room, freely talking about menopause, hot flashes, weight, books, marriage, divorce, the better-looking masseuses, clogs, and salad dressing.
While I was there, I read one of the best books I've read in a long time, Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls. This is a collection of short stories, peopled by characters who get older and jump around the country. Many of them know each other. The stories revolve around the demands of female friendship, getting a bad reputation in high school, eating disorders (in girls and boys), rape, female promiscuity, the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters and mothers and teenage sons, infertility, infidelity, rescue dogs, and the bliss (or lack thereof) of marriage and child-rearing. This book was fantastic. It was brilliant, brave, and energizing, Some of it was gut-wrenching. In the middle of the story "Aren't You Dead Yet?," the narrator, a playwright, writes about an aspiring artist she's involved with and a play she'd written that he wanted to read. "I'd never written anything like that, nothing expressly female. Nothing that felt true like that. I mean, nobody cared about that stuff. Ray wanted me to read it to him."
If you are a girl, woman, mother or wife, or know someone who might turn into a mother or wife, read this book. Most of the characters are resilient women who are deeply unnerved by the challenges life has thrown at them. You'll probably relate to a few of them. In the story, "Elephant," two young mothers meet on a playground, exchange life stories and become close friends. This was one of the saddest and most memorable descriptions of the pitfalls of marriage and child-rearing, and the importance of female friendship, I've ever read. The story rips your heart out.
I gave one of the stories, "The Joy of Cooking," to a writing class I taught last semester. The story is narrated by a divorced, middle-aged mother, who attempts to give cooking advice to her anorexic daughter. Both mother and daughter cling to each other but are also trying to forge new lives for themselves. For various reasons, none of the students in my class liked the story. I loved it. The mother-daughter jousting felt familiar but fresh and funny. You learn what it's like to be in a clinic for girls with eating disorders. And though there was a sad undercurrent running through the story, it also makes you laugh out loud.
This whole book was pleasantly disturbing. Buy it for yourself or take it out of the library and discuss it with your sister, your mother, your daughter, your book group, your friend.