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September 28, 2016

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis


I bought Helen Ellis’s American Housewife after reading about it plenty, and then reading more in Laura Miller’s article on Housewife Fiction (which led me to Diary of a Mad Housewife, by Sue Kaufman, which I loved so much and should surely be brought back into print). I bought it at Ben McNally Books after asking at the counter for a book “with a woman in rollers on the cover, written by someone whose first name is Helen” (because I have become that bookshop patron as my mind begins to fade), and they found it for me. I read it sometime in the summer, but didn’t write about it here, not because it was insubstantial necessarily, but because it was so digestible that I didn’t really need to work through it. Reading this book was like reading a magazine, which I think was meant to be part of its appeal, with the lists scattered throughout between stories and numerous pieces with a didactic bent i.e. “How to be a Grown-Ass Lady” or “How to Be a Patron of the Arts.” There was a surface the reader could skim, is what I mean, though there is more going on if the reader dares to probe deeper.

But there is a limit to the probing (this is not a sexual metaphor, you pervert) because this book is pretty short. It is the most terrific package, a miniature hardcover, cute cover, appealing design on the spine. It is easy to objectify this book and to appreciate it, and yet my book club colleagues who work in publishing were confused about it. People don’t buy short stories, they affirmed, and yes, this is a slight book, but it’s a hardcover, more than 30 dollars. Who was meant to be a audience? Well, me, I thought, although I also know that my singlehanded efforts to support the publishing system have not been seeing the results I’ve been hoping for, so perhaps that wasn’t the most excellent plan.

Anyway, this book is intriguing. It fascinates me that it was borne of a Twitter account (@WhatIDoAllDay), and the resulting snappiness of the book’s contents. It intriguingly plays with the line between autobiography and fiction (in the way that social media in general does) and I’m interested in domesticity as divorced from motherhood, which we don’t see very often. For many women, motherhood offers a direction to one who is otherwise lacking such a thing (for better or for worse) but what do women do if they don’t pursue that option? There is a scathingness to the writing here, and my book club friends wondered just who was being satirized, and if Ellis was reviling her very readers (middle age ladies in book clubs) but I argued that she was implicating herself. This is a book about wanting to write and not writing, or else writing but not being being published (the distinction Ellis describes as the distance between Wimbledon and hammering a tennis ball against the garage door), its about the paralysis of too much choice and women’s roles and living with failure and compromise, and it’s funny, nasty and kind of amazing. We loved its Southern lady/Southern gothic vibe, and the Shirley Jackson darkness, and that John Lithgow appears as a character. I like that Helen Ellis is also a professional poker player, which seems at odds with her southern lady persona, but that is the point of southern lady personas, I think, the surprises that lie beneath an exterior of conventionality. The same could be said of the book. We all had different stories we’d connected with and others not so much, and there was so much to think about, and argue about, and even to agree upon.

And afterwards, we all ate cake.

One thought on “American Housewife, by Helen Ellis”

  1. Laura Frey says:

    I love miniature hardcovers so much! I read another review of this somewhere recently, and was surprised to find that all the housewives in the stories were childless. Still not sure if I’ll read this but I like her Twitter account (imagine those are words no author wants to hear!)

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