American Housewife by Helen Ellis

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Reviewed by Linda Boa

This slim collection of a dozen stories by American novelist and short story writer Helen Ellis is something of a wee gem. With stories ranging from two pages to thirty-eight, they are darkly humorous, very arch, and highly sardonic, some dealing with the most bizarre and random subjects you could possibly think of. There are also some great quotes, which will give you a flavour of Ellis’s uniquely witty worldview.

The first, and shortest story, What I Do All Day, is about exactly that. It’s also a night she and her husband are having a party. “I study long-married-couples and decide that wives are like bras: sometimes the most matronly are the most supportive.” And, post-party, (I love this), “I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.”

The next story, The Wainscoting War, is a story comprising entirely of e-mails between two new neighbours who share a hallway. One of them wants to completely revamp their shared hallway. The new neighbour declares, “Just because life-size oil paintings of Biblical slaughter are framed in gold doesn’t mean they’re in good taste. Our hallway looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry.” It results in all-out war: broken marriages and (I’m sorry!) dead cats. And only one resident remains, to welcome a new neighbour – by e-mail, of course…!

One of my favourites was Dumpster Diving With The Stars, which is a week-long Bargain Hunt-type show featuring “The Author”, who’s had one book published – 15 years previously – and her highly successful author friend, Amy Madeline. Amy’s books “are pastel with shoes or purses on the cover.” “The Author” is also on the show with a Playboy Playmate (“Her breasts sit on her torso like an old-fashioned alarm clock”), a Scientolologist couple (there to quash the gay rumours circling about him), a female tennis player who always wears stilettoes, and John Lithgow, amongst others. On the show, determined to win and disgusted by some of the show’s tactics, she goes all out for victory, and realises that, along the way, her writing muse may just have returned…

Southern Lady Code is two hilarious pages of what people really mean when they say certain things. Hello! Welcome To Book Club is about a book club where the priority is most definitely not reading books. The Fitter is about a Southern man who has inherited the male trait in his family of being able to tell a woman’s bra size by looking. He runs an in demand, well-known and lucrative shop from home with his wife, which is getting busier and busier, as his wife – and business partner – has cancer and The Fitter is “a catch.” But what can she do? How To Be A Grown-Ass Lady gives exactly that advice – like, “Accept it: you’re too old to drink more than one drink and sleep through the night.” Similarly with How To Be A Patron Of The Arts, which is deliciously snarky about women who use their husband’s money to buy whatever they’re persuaded is fashionable in the art world.

The four best stories are left until last. Dead Doormen is definitely my favourite, a black comedy about a wife with a unique and efficient way of dealing with problem doormen in her apartment building. Pageant Protection is another great offering, also blackly funny, about a service which relocates pretty trailer-park pageant queens with rich families in New York – apparently at their own request! I read Take It From Cats without reading the story’s title; when I went back and re-read it, it made perfect sense – some advice from our feline friends. Finally, My Novel Is Brought To You By The Good People At Tampax made me imagine a futuristic world where all novels are an advertising tool – rather like the way product placement has snuck into films and TV. This was a really frightening concept!

Witty and original, Helen Ellis’s short stories will hopefully make their mark in what is traditionally a difficult area in publishing. They’ve done well in the US, and there’s quite a buzz about them here, so I hope they find the right fan-base – they definitely won’t be disappointed.

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Linda blogs at Crimeworm.

Helen Ellis, American Housewife (Simon & Schuster, 2016) 978-1471153792, 208 pp., hardback.

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