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."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- 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.