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In these eight darkly funny linked stories, Schappell delves into the lives of an eclectic cast of archetypal female characters--from the high school slut to the good girl, the struggling artist to the college party girl, the wife who yearns for a child to the reluctant mother-- to explore the commonly shared but rarely spoken of experiences that build girls into women and women into wives and mothers. In "Monsters of the Deep," teenage Heather struggles to balance intimacy with a bad reputation; years later in "I'm Only Going to Tell You This Once," she must reconcile her memories of the past with her role as the mother of an adolescent son. In "The Joy of Cooking," a phone conversation between Emily, a recovering anorexic, and her mother explores a complex bond; in "Elephant" we see Emily's sister, Paige, finally able to voice her ambivalent feelings about motherhood to her new best friend, Charlotte. And in "Are You Comfortable?" we meet a twenty-one-year-old Charlotte cracking under the burden of a dark secret, the effects of which push Bender, a troubled college girl, to the edge in "Out of the Blue into the Black." Weaving in and out of one another's lives, whether connected by blood, or friendship, or necessity, these women create deep and lasting impressions. In revealing all their vulnerabilities and twisting our preconceived notions of who they are, Elissa Schappell, with dazzling wit and poignant prose, has forever altered how we think about the nature of female identity and how it evolves.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-05-23
- Reviewer: Staff
This raw and engaging collection, Schappell's second (after Use Me), follows a cast of girls and women as they navigate relationships with each other, their mothers, and men across several decades. The strongest stories are those about gutsy girls who aren't "afraid to throw the trick," as one character's gymnastics coach describes her in "Out of the Blue and into the Black." Schappell endeavors to show the complex vulnerabilities behind some of the choices made by girls casually judged as sluts, as in "Monsters of the Deep" and "I'm Only Going to Tell You This Once," and this is where she is at her best; less successful, by comparison, are the more diffuse stories that depict the dynamics between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands. Each story adds new perspectives of characters or events chronicled earlier in the book, allowing Schappell to create a bigger, more textured and complicated world than is usually found in collections. This, combined with the energy of the writing and the dark wit of these characters, will endear the book to Schappell's audience and fans of Lorrie Moore and Maile Meloy. (Sept.)
The feminine mystique
Mothers, daughters, friends, wives and lovers—from the late ’70s to the present day—fill the pages of Elissa Schappell’s wise and witty linked short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Schappell, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with an impressive literary pedigree (The Paris Review, Tin House, PEN/Hemingway finalist for Use Me, her debut novel), paints a multifaceted portrait of modern womanhood with the conflicted, interconnected female protagonists of her eight compelling stories.
In “A Dog Story,” New York couple Kate and Douglas struggle to have a baby and decide to adopt a dog, which leads to unforeseen realizations about their relationship. Two young Brooklyn moms take stock of their lives and wonder if they would have children if they had to do it all over again in “Elephant.” Emily, a reformed anorexic, calls her devoted mother for a family chicken recipe in “The Joy of Cooking,” thinking that if she can just make a perfect meal for the new man in her life, she will have some control over her chaotic world. In “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,” a mother tells her teenage son about a tragic, defining moment from her past and remembers herself at his age.
Schappell writes with piercing insight and good humor, but one of her greatest gifts is her restraint. In “Are You Comfortable?,” one of the collection’s strongest pieces, we don’t know what caused young Charlotte to take a leave of absence from college and return home to care for her ailing grandfather until the very end of the story. We see Charlotte again as a young mother in “Elephant,” and learn exactly what happened to her through a college friend with problems of her own in “Out of the Blue and into the Black.” Blueprints isn’t a novel in stories, and the pieces certainly stand on their own. But the thoughtful ways in which Schappell ties her characters’ lives together add much to the significance of the collection as a whole. 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.