With its eye-catching cover, Helen Ellis’s latest book had me at first sight: I am such a sucker for book covers, and this one was impossible for me to ignore. Add in the fact that I’m also a sucker for weird characters, short stories, and bizarre scenarios, and it becomes pretty clear that this book and I were meant to be. I wasn’t familiar with Ellis’s work before this, but I’d say her work is in the same vein as Aimee Bender and Ramona Ausubel’s…if one were to replace the magical realism with deadpan humor.
The twelve stories in the collection are all about women who are OVER. IT. in one way or another.
In “The Wainscoting War,” two neighbors battle it out via email over the decor of their shared hallway. It’s new money vs. old money, and the facade of tolerant politeness quickly gives way to all out war. Refined people throwing shade are present throughout the book, parceled out in thinly veiled insults and acerbic witticisms.
In “The Fitter,” the object of the struggle is a lot more personal. A woman is married to a bra fitter with the ability to make any pair of boobs look amazing. Of course, that means that every woman in town wants him.
The Fitter says, “Hop.”
Myrtle looks to me and I nod. I hate it when they hop. When they hop, every woman is a sixteen-year-old girl. Myrtle hops and for the first time in a long, long time her breasts don’t boing like Slinkies. …
I whisper, “Careful, Myrtle. The Fitter don’t cheat.”
A few of the stories feature authors who are now struggling with struggling in the aftermath of their fleeting fame. In “Patron of the Arts,” a published author abandons the struggle of her sophomore slump in favor of just playing the part of an eccentric socialite author who cultivates fledgling artists’ work. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a woman who wrote a single cult classic fifteen years ago finds herself dragged by her friend, a mega-famous romance author, onto a reality television show in which she’s the least famous person there. She’s a complete nobody compared to John Lithgow and the millionaire Scientologist movie star. She also ends up being the most successful dumpster diver, much to the producers’ chagrin:
“If the writer wins the plate, she’ll win the whole show. We can’t have that. Nobody knows who she is. She’s never been in Playboy. She’s never been in — what’s Playboy for writers?”
Mario Batali says, “The New Yorker.”
But the author story that takes the cake is the one that closes the collection, “This Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax.” An author agrees to write a corporate-sponsored novel and signs her life away in the contract. As she gets closer to missing her deadlines, Tampax steps in, acting like a mob boss to ensure they get their product on time.
The stories are all smart and cheeky. For me, American Housewife was that rare collection in which I ended up liking all of the stories. If you’re a fan of irreverent humor, you should give this one a shot.
American Housewife was published in January 2016 by Doubleday.