Review published on March 6, 2017.
Gleefully acerbic and wantonly demented, Helen Ellis’ American Housewife comprises 12 witty and refreshing stories in which the home-making women battle their husbands, popular culture, reality TV dumpster diving contests, infertility, interior design and, most crucially, each other. Throughout the collection runs the idea that, if there’s a perfect way to be a woman, nobody’s figured out how to achieve it.
I read American Housewife soon after finishing a collection of Shirley Jackson’s short fiction; in their frustrated response to the limitations placed upon them, Ellis’ women could be the great-granddaughters of Jackson’s bored characters. This boredom manifests itself in pettiness in ‘The Wainscoting Wars,’ while this story and ‘Dead Doormen’ share a style of plot twist reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels. The idea of rivalry between women recurs in the form of a bitchy book group with a hidden agenda and an ill wife fighting to keep her bra-fitting husband; both these stories are also imbued with pathos, offsetting the more disturbing events presented elsewhere in the book.
Ellis’ style is razor-sharp in all the stories, from a satirical account of pageant queens escaping their overbearing mothers in my favourite story from the collection, to the tale of a writer working at the behest of Tampax, pressured into a ludicrous product placement. There are clear targets to Ellis’ skewering of feminine culture, but real humour, albeit dark, can be found at the root of each narrative. I found myself smiling wryly repeatedly while reading it.
Crucially for a short story collection, no narrative outstays its welcome, with a perfect mix of stories I wanted to read more of and perfectly formed vignettes. I enjoyed my time spent with a group of fictional women who amused and terrified me in equal measure.
Katy Goodwin-Bates 4/4
American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Scribner UK 9781471153808 pbk Feb 2017
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