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American Housewife: Stories


American Housewife: Stories

Helen Ellis’ AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE collects a myriad of darkly witty stories, from pageants to penthouses and many discontented marriages in between. Her style is as variable as her plot: some stories read like brief novellas; others, like “Take It From Cats,” are simply clever and pithy lists exploring the restrictions and absurdities of contemporary housewifery. Ellis imparts wisdom in her funniest moments, calling out some of the more insensitive and sexist routines of our culture in “Pageant Protection” and “Dumpster Diving With the Stars.” She also finds a certain absurdist, almost modernist levity in some of her darkest moments, crafting astute humor within the morbidity of “The Wainscoting War” and “Dead Doormen.”

Ellis’ tone is almost modern Gothic, influenced very likely by Flannery O’Connor and similar voices. She indulges in the habits and pettiness of her chosen subjects, and her style is swift and strong; every story is tight and well-paced in its own right. AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is visual, insightful, often hilarious and attractively bizarre.

"Ellis has rendered beautifully a collection of stale stereotypes, infused them with her own wit and charm, and produced creative work that overall is absolutely delicious to read."

My one disappointment here is that nothing seems truly new. Ellis’ form and style are sharp, detailed, versatile and engaging, and I wish she had given herself a broader scope to work with. AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE has no need to stagnate in cliché. A book by this title published at the tail end of 2015 has no business limiting the definition of “housewife” to appearance-obsessed, able-bodied, straight white women of varying wealth, and the exclusion was notable.

This slim volume is wildly creative, but after story after story that could almost feature the very nearly same protagonist, I was disappointed. I wanted Ellis to turn her shrewd gaze towards the projects, towards immigrant women, towards disabled housewives, towards queer housewives. Ellis can claim versatility when it comes to content, but only from a small, almost pre-selected series of concepts. This disappointing truth rendered an otherwise well-crafted collection deflatingly predictable.

When I glanced at the book cover and description --- wine, neighbor fights, an attention to/a patriarchal obsession with appearances and unfaithful husbands --- all seemed par for the course within my first guess. You can’t tell me it wasn’t her project to be innovative because her voice shines off the page, so why stick to such limited perspectives? There’s more to the American housewife; we know that by now, don’t we? Can’t we recognize it in our art? In our humor? Ellis has rendered beautifully a collection of stale stereotypes, infused them with her own wit and charm, and produced creative work that overall is absolutely delicious to read.

But that doesn’t make them any fresher.

Don’t get me wrong, I love many of Ellis’ housewives. I love that she explores their nuance and peculiarities without forgiving the structures and systems that encourage them. I love their outlandish experiences, their relatable trains of thought, their wild and familiar universes. I only wish she had broadened her scope and sensitivity to include the fullness of her project. This is only one corner of the portrait that is the “American housewife.”

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on January 15, 2016

American Housewife: Stories
by Helen Ellis

  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1101970995
  • ISBN-13: 9781101970997