Saturday, November 19, 2016

What we're reading: Stories about Women

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell, is a collection of short stories released last year to great critical acclaim. I had it on my shelf for a while before I finally got around to reading it, but I managed to gravitate to it at exactly the right moment. These stories all feature female protagonists, mostly working class, negotiating various relationships with daughters, husbands, dogs, and HVAC repairmen.

The common thread through these stories is the strength and self-possession the women display, even if it takes a while for it to come into focus. One stand-out is “Playhouse,” in which a young woman is surprised to find out she was raped at a party while she was passed out the previous night. Her brother, who was also at the party, says it looked like she was having fun, and didn’t do anything to stop it. While she is upset and tries to convince him that he should have intervened, she has trouble mustering up enough rage to even convince herself. Is rape even the right word? She’s not sure. All the while this conversation is going on, her brother is taking pains to make sure a playhouse is safe enough for his young daughter to play in. So it’s even more upsetting to see how a supposedly good man could rationalize sexual assault. He ends up driving a screw through her arm, and though she says it hurts, he tells her not to bother with doctors. After much indecision, she finally drives herself to the emergency room, where indeed the injury proves bad enough to have warranted the trip. She is relieved to know she wasn’t just being a drama queen. This simple act of taking her needs seriously gives the reader hope for a future where she is strong enough to take care of herself.

Not all of the stories are so heavy. Another of my favorites was “My Dog Roscoe,” in which a woman is convinced that her new rescue dog is her ex-fiancĂ© reincarnated. The similarities she draws between the two are hilarious. Throughout, Campbell’s writing is sharp, funny, and incredibly intelligent without being too "writerly." The characters are so richly drawn that I found almost all of the stories to be as satisfying to read as a full-length novel. It is an especially welcome time to be reassured of all the ways women are powerful and will continue to endure with strength and grace.

Editor's note: If you enjoy reading this sort of book, NoveList has some suggestions for other books of short stories about the pleasures and perils of being a woman, including:

Amor and Psycho, by Carolyn Cooke
How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer
The Cost of Lunch, Etc., by Marge Piercy
Blueprints for Building Better Girls, by Elissa Schappell

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