“If you’ve got a friend who ‘doesn’t read short stories’, we reckon they’ll (she’ll?) probably enjoy this one” – American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Ellis’s debut collection has been hailed all over the internet as an early hit of the year; the buzz is pretty remarkable, firstly, for a story collection (it’s been hyped by Margaret Atwood!), and secondly, for a writer who’d already, allegedly, thought her career had tanked, after her early success with a first novel (Eating the Cheshire Cat: we haven’t read it) was followed by a continuing run of rejections. She changed tack, became a housewife and – wait for it – a star poker player on the US national tournament circuit (Colson Whitehead used her as a mentor when he was researching the game). And then, feeling more confident, she joined Twitter as @WhatIDoAllDay (also the title, and theme, of this collection’s opening story, which was drawn almost verbatim from her account feed), and started, once more, to write: she sent a bunch of stories out to literary magazines, got plucked from the slush pile by the likes of The Normal School and Crab Creek Review, and the resulting book was sold, amidst a flurry of pre-emptive bids, to Scribner. Not bad, eh? Writers: comebacks do happen!
What’s it like, though? Very funny, in the same way that the melodramatic problems of the Desperate Housewives (yeah, we know, our pop-culture references are both obvious and out of date – shut it) were funny; the moneyed ladies that battle with one another and with the other OTT denizens of their very rarified worlds in Ellis’s pages are as devious and cunning as they are stylish, and their problems (and solutions) are as peculiar and entertaining as you’d expect from the hype. But? Well, while it’s going to get you ‘cackling’ in places, as Atwood suggested, it’s perhaps a little frothy. The characters’ dilemmas (how to lure new blood into their book club in order to find surrogate mothers for their childless members; how to make a living kidnapping child beauty queens for hefty cash sums) are great – weird, quirky, freakishly believable – but the voices aren’t particularly distinct. The effect is that while the general topic lingers (that book cub: Emily Gilmore wouldn’t be impressed), the characters don’t, and so the stories meld: a prototypical American Housewife emerges, but her individual instances fade away… While some of the more bizarre stories stand out (again, ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ is a reference point) for a grotesqueness that feel like it could, hideously, actually happen, ‘The Fitter’ (a woman is married to a renowned bra-fitter and fears she’ll lose him to one of his lascivious clients after she has a mastectomy) feels, for instance, more cartoon-like: the main character’s fears, and thus the story’s emotional core, get subsumed by the gimmick of the preternaturally talented Fitter (and his capital letter).
That said, there’s plenty to enjoy, and the two stories that particularly stood out – ‘Dumpster Diving With the Stars’ and ‘My Novel is Brought to you by the Good People at Tampax’ – did so because their idiosyncratic plots didn’t overshadow, but instead heightened, the human problems at their cores. They’re both about writers, too, which might reveal something about Ellis’s investment in them; either way, they’re about fear of failure, of obscurity, of the loss of love and family, and about what we’ll do, or sacrifice, to help one another.
Any Cop?: It’s a funny read, and a quick one, and if you’ve got a friend who ‘doesn’t read short stories’, we reckon they’ll (she’ll?) probably enjoy this one – but then you’ll have to segue them onto George Saunders, okay?
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- February 22, 2016 / 9:00 am