September 2011

The feminine mystique

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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.

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