American Housewife – Helen Ellis

The women of American Housewife tell their stories in tales that range from between a page and forty pages in length. Some, anonymously, tell us about themselves:

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane.

Others give instructions about the ‘Southern Lady Code’, ‘How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady and ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’, the latter seemingly a guide to Ellis herself as much as to the reader.

The first real gem in the collection, ‘The Wainscotting War’, is told entirely through emails between two neighbours in an apartment building. Beginning with passive-aggressive lines: I’ve returned your basket to our shared mail table, which I believe is an antique toilet, to blatant dislike: Our hallway looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry, to outright aggression: To quote your graffiti: Suck it, to an ending that will make you reconsider ever getting involved in a dispute with a neighbour.

Many of the women hide real sadness behind their snide retorts and one-liners. Like the wife of the pilgrimage-worthy bra-fitter who begins her story with: The Fitter is mine. Myrtle Babcock can get her flabby pancake tits out of his face and ends it with the secret as to why business is booming, and the women in ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ who cover up their sorrows with their regular meeting and ‘Book Club names’.

In the longest story in the collection, ‘Dumpster Diving with the Stars’, a writer of an out-of-print cult classic goes on a reality TV show suggested by her best friend, a ‘chick-lit’ writer who publishes a book a year. Her roommate and partner in the competitions is Mitzy, former Playmate and girlfriend of Hugh Hefner. She’s an identical twin and it’s the first time she’s ever been separated from her sister. Structured through the ‘Cardinal Reality Rules’, the first person writer narrator shows us the reality behind reality TV – who’s hiding what and why; how the contestants are manipulated – and delivers some interesting points about the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

American Housewife is as much about writing as it is being a housewife in 21st Century America. Several stories in the collection involve a writer, mostly revolving around ideas of how to survive when your career isn’t going as you dreamed it would. Getting a sponsorship deal with Tampax isn’t the answer, it seems.

The women in the book who aren’t writers are somewhat unpredictable. Beneath their polished veneers, they’re plotters, kidnappers and murderers. Their stories are delightfully dark and twisted, showing that while women might not seem to have the upper hand in society, they’re damn well going to take it anyway.

American Housewife is an absolute jewel of a collection: dark, piercing and laugh-out-loud funny.

9 thoughts on “American Housewife – Helen Ellis

  1. It’s very sharp, I felt, and almost brittle, except for a few of the stories you mentioned, the ones that get into the sadness behind it all: Dumpster Diving With the Stars, The Fitter, and also, to some extent, How to Be a Patron of the Arts, which I really do think is an amazing anatomization of being okay with the fact that your success looks different from how you imagined it would look. Those were the most effective ones, for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this as well, and although I had planned to read one story a night, I ended up finishing the book in two sittings. No doubt Atwoof herself named this one of her books of the yar. It is clever, funny, dark… and it is all about women.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, Vienna | Yasmine Rose Reads Books

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