[16 October 2011]
Elissa Schappell’s winning short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, begins just as it should: by defying readers’ expectations of female characters. When teenaged Ross confesses his love to sort-of-girlfriend Heather, she laughs and replies, “You don’t even know me.” Ross is confused, feeling “like maybe he read the manual wrong.” As far as Ross knows, all girls want to hear those three little words—“I love you.” But Heather isn’t so easy to catalogue. Neither are any of Schappell’s complex, smart, brave, sad, and striving female characters, in fact.
While the women in Blueprints for Building Better Girls certainly want to be loved—often badly, desperately—they aren’t the ladies of vintage etiquette books. They’re women on the verge. The children scuff their heels, throw fits, and drag their pigtails through the dirt. The college girls inhale drugs and pound beers while wearing their ladylike pearls, going on week-long benders. (We’ll get to those epic benders shortly.) The mothers are variously devoted, distracted, possessive, and unfulfilled. All of these characters contradict themselves. In essence, they’re messy, complicated people with great depth beneath their facades. They aren’t what readers might expect.
The ladies in Blueprints for Building Better Girls are much more than their labels—slut, mother, anorexic, artist, good girl, party girl. The men can be, too, although these aren’t their stories. The male characters, fairly or unfairly, are “gearheads”, “men of science”, “captains of industry”. They can be pragmatic and industrious, but like Ross, they don’t really know their female counterparts, too glued to their BlackBerries to recognize them. On several occasions, men deem eating-disordered girls as healthy because they look “great,” taking for granted the extreme effort that goes into meeting physical expectations. They assign nicknames, prompting Heather to wonder about Ross, “I don’t know why he’s so desperate to name me.”
Heather is a good ambassador for Blueprints for Building Better Girls, beginning the book in “Monsters of the Deep” and ending it with “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once”. In the first story, Heather is a teenager in the late ‘70s, and in the last, she’s the mother of a teenage son in the present day. Heather’s book-ending stories illustrate a point she makes to her son in the final tale: “People don’t change that much.”
Heather’s (seemingly) most innocuous trait is her interest in marine biology, deep waters, and waves. The wave imagery is apt, as the stories that follow “Monsters of the Deep” feature different women in different years, separate and yet loosely connected by acquaintances and shared experiences. The themes and circumstances in Blueprint for Building Better Girls’ stories overlap like waves in the ocean, repeating perpetually.
For example, “A Dog Story” and “Elephant” share a setting and a subject: young parenthood in Brooklyn. In the former, a couple struggles to conceive a child despite fertility and relationship challenges; the later revolves around two moms who combat career setbacks, strained marriages, loneliness, and regret about their chosen paths. Readers sense that Kate of “A Dog Story” hopes, at least initially, that a child will save her marriage. If she knew Charlotte and Paige of “Elephant”, she might feel differently.
Charlotte and Paige do well enough together, though, forging a deep friendship that involves the exchange of intimate secrets, confessions, and gifts—including a rose-shaped Lucite pinkie ring, lavender sachets, and a postcard with the image of Vita Sackville-West. Their heart-swelling bond causes Charlotte to look at Paige the way Peter looked at Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway, wistfully: “There she was.” (This bond might seem familiar to Butter from a later story, “Out of the Blue and into the Black”.) At the beginning of the “Elephant”, the women use mom-speak like “goodness to grape juice” and fill awkward pauses with yawns, but by the end, they’re drinking wine on the playground from a thermos, confessing doubts, sexual histories, and dalliances with bulimia.
Despite those dalliances, Charlotte’s and Paige’s self destruction was “strictly JV” compared to that of Paige’s older sister, Emily. Emily’s tale is told in “The Joy of Cooking”, one of the most uncomfortable stories in the book. In it, Emily’s mother delivers a recipe for chicken over the phone, revealing her own complicated relationship to numerical obsession, food, hunger, and motherhood. Eating disordered girls are sprinkled throughout the book, and in “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, burgeoning playwright Beth (later calling herself “B” and finally “Lizzy”) dares to write about women’s complicated relationship with food, in the face of discouragement from her deadbeat, “free spirited” boyfriend—a Rothko-Pollock-Haring-Kerouac-wannabe who envies Beth’s artistic success.
The penultimate tale, “Out of the Blue and into the Black”, is possibly the best, most exciting, and most tragic of Blueprint for Building Better Girls’ heady stories. The previous tales foreshadow this one, since its heroine, Belinda (better known as “Bender”) is a social butterfly, a connector out of The Tipping Point. Bender knows everyone and is indeed usually tipsy, if not outright blackout drunk, and yet she thinks her nickname comes from her gymnastics background. When Bender describes herself as fun, readers will believe her, imagining the cheers that erupt from liquor-soaked frat parties when the notorious bad girl arrives. Bender’s voice is vibrant and personal, her insecurity is palpable, and her sympathy (empathy?) for a sexually assaulted girlfriend is heartbreakingly memorable and tragic. Her critical mean-girl shtick and hints at depression are broken up by sad jokes as poetic interludes, framing her troubled state.
What, then, makes these stories blueprints for building better girls? Nothing, really. Obviously, the book doesn’t give instructions on how to live, how to behave, or how to be “a lady.” This gorgeous book contains portraits of human nature more than instructions for success, filled with protagonists vaguely capable of love, vicious competiveness, bleak neurosis, and shining ambition. This collection is not a primer. It’s a realistically rendered history—one that shows that history repeats itself, and even today, challenges (sometimes self-imposed) continue to threaten women’s odds of success.
But it can build better girls. (Not perfect, but better. Wiser.) After all, we learn as much from history’s losers as we do from its winners, and Blueprints for Building Better Girls gives us an array of female archetypes to study. Readers can use this book as a mirror of themselves in the harshest, most honest and penetrating light, and strive to make changes (or not) accordingly.