Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction
What Elissa Schappell calls the blueprints of girls might also be called anatomies or inner workings. This collection of eight stories delves into teenhood, womanhood, wifehood and motherhood, from the late ’70s into today, in order to understand the condition of being female and Gen X. Loosely linked through characters and circumstance, each story takes as its subject a woman in a different stage of life, whether it’s college discoveries of self or a mother who still needs to coddle her grown daughter.
"The strength in many of Schappell’s stories is that her protagonists are never outwardly apologetic about who they are, even if they might have internal struggles with their identities. As a result, they feel real, not like they’re trying too hard to be perfect young women."
The strength in many of Schappell’s stories is that her protagonists are never outwardly apologetic about who they are, even if they might have internal struggles with their identities. As a result, they feel real, not like they’re trying too hard to be perfect young women. And yet they acknowledge their unconventionality. In “Monsters of the Deep,” Heather is perfectly fine having sex with Ross if that’s what he wishes; she would just like the television on in the background, please. Paige and Charlotte, in “Elephant,” gravitate towards each other precisely because they know they’re not as perfect as the other moms at the playground. And Kate of “A Dog Story” is less than certain about whether she’s reacting to her miscarriage in the appropriate way.
Two of the strongest stories in BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS are “The Joy of Cooking” and “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” The former is first surprising in its protagonist --- the narrator, referred to only as Mommy, is at once sad, regretful and dismissive, and the story is a powerful representation of what happens to familial relationships as children grow older. Beth/Lizzie/B of “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” is similarly self-reflective but callous. It’s an excellent depiction of how a writer gets her ideas. Where would any short story collection be without one of those?
These are all different women, though many of them know each other. The common thread is in Schappell’s own voice, which comes strongly through in each narrative as an introverted, intuitive, smarter-than-she-appears protagonist. Though that distinct voice is a strength of her writing overall, it also serves to weaken the collection, as it’s hard to distinguish between narrators as you jump from story to story. When every protagonist is gifted at astute observations about others, and when every protagonist is self-aware almost to a fault, it’s hard to believe that they could all have such different experiences.
Schappell is clearly playing with the currently oft-used trope of seemingly disparate stories that slowly reveal a thread of “Oh, they’re all connected!”, but she does it in a far less annoying or obvious way than other writers or filmmakers have done. These stories are linked because the human experience is linked; what happens in one person’s life can influence the choices made by another. This is a well-written addition to the canon of current literary short fiction. Nothing is radical or particularly new in BLUEPRINTS, but it’s very good fiction; for a lover of stories, that should be enough.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on September 29, 2011