Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction Hardcover – Sep 6 2011
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“A hilarious, poignant achievement. . . . Schappell has an exceptional gift for bringing a vibrant, irresistible group of characters to life, making Blueprints a positively addictive read.” —Meredith Maran, People (4 stars)
“The women in Elissa Schappell's new story collection ought to come with a warning label. Danger: Contents under pressure. Emotionally sensitive compounds may be present. Toxic sentiments could be released if disturbed or shaken. . . . Keep hands out of reach at all times, because also: These women bite. . . . Schappell’s stories acutely evoke the disorientation induced in women by our culture’s barrage of mixed messages . . . . [Schappell] is a diva of the encapsulating phrase, capable of conveying a Pandora’s box of feeling in a single line.” —Jennifer B. McDonald, The New York Times Book Review
“Darkly funny. . . As distinctive and tart as the cherry on its cover, the stories have a comedic touch and ironic edge, softened by moments of memorable tenderness.” —Elizabeth Taylor, "Editor's Choice", Chicago Tribune
“Electrifyingly alive, funny, and thrillingly honest. You know these women, right down to the way they like their coffee. Schappell is an effortless stylist." —Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe
“Memorable . . . seductive . . . Schappell’s commanding, honest prose taps into a deeper sense of story that promises to resonate with many readers.” —S. Kirk Walsh, San Francisco Chronicle
“Schappell’s stories read like snapshots—capturing precise moments from a woman’s life from a distinct perspective. Considered together, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a treasured photo album.” —Bookpage
“Despite the talent for arch comedy that Schappell and her characters share, the tragic dimension of each story sears the heart." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Schappell…creates wise, sexy, funny, and fathoms-deep tales of dire miscommunication.” —Booklist
“This is brave stuff. I learned things reading this book. Hilarious and heartbreaking at the very same time, these mothers, daughters, wives are all struggling to be honest with themselves—and we get the gift of Schappell being honest with us. These characters are poignant, searing, memorable.” —Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge
"Like many American women, Elissa Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap. In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder the mystery of how those girls became these women.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children
“Elissa Schappell writes earthquakes into existence—these stories will make you laugh until you’re hoarse and sob, too, often within one perfectly rendered, unforgettable scene. Schappell reminds us that we don't have to look far afield for exotic, complex, hilarious and tragic stories—her rendering of women's inner lives is fresh and necessary. Her humor is the flashlight she shines into the deepest, darkest, truest aspects of her character’s experiences.” —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“This is a wise, tough, and slyly funny book by a writer with a beautiful sense of detail and character. Schappell is a marvel when she gets in close with her people and brings them to moments of horrible, glorious revelation.” —Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
“Elissa Schappell's voice is so lively, smart, and honest—reading these stories is like sitting on a bench with a great friend and talking for hours about what's really going on; Schappell's such an incisive observer but she sees what she sees with big generosity and humor and warmth—what a pleasure to read these bursts of life!” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
“Schappell has the ability—and the guts—to cut straight through the ‘girls gone wild’ images that inevitably throb to mind (ouch) and show us the tender and often hopeful human beings that live inside these women-to-be.” (Oprah.com)
About the Author
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and cofounder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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
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."
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.
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.
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.