I am not an American housewife. And although I joke that my life goal is to marry strategically, become a trophy wife, and live comfortably on someone else’s money, I am nowhere close to marriage, financially advantageous or otherwise. Despite this fact, I recognized myself in the stories of American Housewife by Helen Ellis. Smart, concise, honest, and a bit creepy, this is definitely the most entertaining collection of short stories I have ever read. (Plus, she’s coming to the Mississippi Book Festival in less than a month!!!)
The women of American Housewife display a wide array of American stereotypes, from the New York socialite to the Southern lady. Stereotypes exist for a reason, so of course these figures are recognizable to me, both as women I know and as myself. But Helen Ellis takes the familiar forms a step further. A neighborly conversation between two lovely and civil women becomes an all-out decorating war. A feminine writer who takes part in a reality TV show finds herself psycho-analyzing her competitors until no one can hide from their faults. A young woman married to a bra fitter questions her husband’s attention span, given the constant temptation in his line of work.
Each story appears to be about normal, stay-at-home women. They are perfectly polite and rather lovely. But as the story progresses, the strange details and heightened emotions escalate until you suddenly find yourself somewhere you never imagined the story could go. An all-inclusive book club morphs into an unsettling hostage situation. The domestic tragedies of an apartment building become more personal and more connected to the lonely, delusional wife. And Tampax decides that their sponsorship of a woman’s novel warrants extreme “productivity encouragement” in the form of house arrest and abductions. Towards the middle of each story, I began to connect the bizarre details. But every single time, the story went even further, until I found myself whispering, “Ohhhhhh, I didn’t think she would go there, BUT SHE DID.” The story would not end until I was thoroughly unsettled and, frankly, creeped out in the best way possible. I pride myself on my ability to see plot twists from a mile away. With Helen Ellis, I had no idea what would happen in the next five seconds.
American Housewife is hilarious and satirical. It’s more than a little unsettling, and always surprising. And yet beneath the manicured nails, cherry-red lipstick, and unshakable poise, there is a wealth of honest emotion. These women go extreme lengths to protect themselves and the things they value. They choose people to love, and care for them without question. They know exactly who they are and how they want their lives to be. It is rare to find a collection of stories that celebrates strong, feminine characters while embracing the ridiculousness that is being an American woman. We are complex creatures, full of duality, and I appreciate a writer who can portray this with a healthy dose of sarcasm. I enjoy recognizing myself and laughing at the reflection.
Helen Ellis will serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.