I have never liked short stories. I gravitate toward novels, for their character depth and their elaborate plots, and can’t recall a single time I’ve voluntarily spent money on a volume of short stories.
That changes right now, with American Housewife. (Well, to be fair, I did receive a free ARC of the book prior to its January 12th release, but I plan to buy some more copies as gifts for my naughtier bookish friends.) It’s that good.
Normally I’d advise against this, but it’s fine to judge American Housewife by its cover, which features a square-jawed, full-lipped, pink-haired beauty clad in orange terry-cloth panties and black-framed nerd glasses sitting on the potty filing her nails and curling her hair. Right on! That’s exactly what I do every day once my husbands treks off to work. They left out the bonbons, but you get the gist. Then once you get past that, you plunge into a little essay called, appropriately, What I Do All Day, followed by the first of the stories, The Wainscoting War.
And it becomes immediately obvious this is not the typical collection of literary stories. Let me tell you: literary agents and editors are all about something they call Voice. Everybody’s mired in an endless search for the holy grail of Voice, which is writing that manages to be engaging and unique, without being too experimental or off-putting. Or, to employ another buzzword: fresh. It has to lull you into a swoony state of intoxication at its brilliance, while simultaneously firing up your nervous system with I can’t believe she just wrote that. Helen Ellis has it: her writing is clean and technically great, with this seditious, subversive, Amy Sedaris-like vibe. It’s a little bit wicked.
For example: here’s the delicious narrator of Hello! Welcome to Book Club, addressing the newest, youngest member of their New York reading group as she systematically skewers every woman present on the catty spike of her wit:
Bethany works sixteen-hour days and is on call all the time and thus has never married. She wants a baby and for whatever reason wants to personally give birth to that baby, and she refuses to have one-night stands or steal hospital sperm samples, so her biological clock is deafening.
Not like yours, dear. At your age, fertility is like a pocket watch swaddled in cotton, drawn up in a velvet pouch and tucked inside a Pringles can.
But Bethany’s! Sometimes I walk past the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and am frightened a bomb is about to go off. I imagine my upper torso landing in a gyro cart and the contents of my purse laid out for all to see. Then, I realize it’s not anxiety hounding me; it’s Bethany’s biological clock. It ticks so loud, I’m amazed Mount Sinai isn’t evacuated on a daily basis.
Oh Bethany, don’t make that face! You know it’s true!
Every piece features its own little version of crazy: in Dead Doormen, our heroine is a psychopath disguised as a clean-freak Manhattan matron; in The Wainscoting War, two neighbors who share a hallway escalate their design conflict all the way to the nuclear option; and in Pageant Protection little lower-class Southern girls are rescued from a lifetime of bad taste by a shocking avenger. Sometimes the stories drift in the direction of poignancy, as in The Fitter (a woman married to a bra-fitting maestro loses her most valued assets) but most often they rocket into your brain on a jetstream of luscious snark.
My two favorites: the aforementioned Hello! Welcome to Book Club, and My Novel Is Brought To You By, which is a little inside wink to creative types everywhere. As every writer can attest, pursuit of the dreaded “platform” means drowning in a sea of inane tweets, corporate manipulation and malicious blog comments, leaving only a giant sinkhole where writing time used to be. Or at least that’s way it seems.
All in all, a great read.
Title: AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE
Author: Helen Ellis
Genre: Short Stories
Page count: 185
Prose style: 5
Character development: 5
Entertainment value: 5