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The Wrong Heaven


The Wrong Heaven

THE WRONG HEAVEN, a collection of short stories by Amy Bonnaffons, is stylistically of the moment and still manages to convey some universal and timeless notions about female relationships, perspectives and emotions. These 10 tales are strange, sometimes even fanciful, yet the characters shine as Bonnaffons ensures they don’t get bogged down in the whimsy.

The titular story is about a lonely teacher named Cheryl who buys two lawn ornaments, one of Jesus and one of Mary, to help offset what she feels to be the growing evidence that Jesus is not on her side. The evidence itself, enumerated on a list of 14 items, includes animal cruelty, insomnia, dimpled thighs, and, buried in the middle, “the general lack of love in life.” The ornaments light up when they are plugged in, but they also speak to her. While the two divine statues assure Cheryl that she is loved and they want to help her, she finds them judgmental and tries to return them. But the store’s policy prohibits refunds, so she is stuck with them until she figures out a way to quiet them.

"THE WRONG HEAVEN is an inventive book full of humor and fantasy. However, these stories have an undeniable heft and seriousness as Bonnaffons explores the complex interior lives of her female characters."

In the meantime, Cheryl mourns the loss of her dog, thinks about death and the afterlife with her eight-year-old students, and befriends the man who sold her the plastic statues. That the statues talk to her is not surprising to Cheryl (or, after a page or so, to the reader), and despite the setup, Cheryl and her sadness, sorrow and isolation feel very real.

Similarly, Chris, the female narrator of “The Other One,” has heartache she cannot easily demonstrate. Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my Pocket” gets firmly lodged in her head, and she finds herself spending her free time at JoyfulSongTime, singing it karaoke style obsessively. Singing the song, trying to rid herself of it, gives her the chance to work through her feelings on her job, her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s ex-wife, and the loss she is experiencing. Both “The Cleas” and “Doris and Katie” share these themes of contentment (or lack thereof), response to male attention (or lack thereof), melancholy and happiness.

However, the stories that readers will most likely remember are the ones that examine those ideas through a weird lens. In “Horse,” a woman is actively turning herself into a mare. While her friend tries to get pregnant by IVF, Cass is taking injections to radically alter her very being. She hopes to feel her “formerly messy self congeal, cohere, grow tight and purposeful.” Bonnaffons contrasts the paths the two friends are on nicely. And while it is all too obvious that the physical changes are meant to symbolize deeper ones, the story is successful because the writing is so clean and the speculative fiction elements are so well-controlled. Controlled, too, are the expressed emotions of the characters, yet they roil just under the surface, creating a compelling tension.

“Horse” moves between Cass’ narration and the creepy FAQs shared by the Atalanta Ranch on the process of “Equinification.” Bonnaffons wisely allows the FAQs to indicate the state of mind of Cass, and other women like her, willing to give up humanity for a strange freedom and limited wildness. It is a provocative, insightful and disturbing story.

THE WRONG HEAVEN is an inventive book full of humor and fantasy. However, these stories have an undeniable heft and seriousness as Bonnaffons explores the complex interior lives of her female characters. She is able to dig deep and look closely at her characters (and some aspects of contemporary life of American women) without offering judgment or lacking kindness for them. Overall, this is an enjoyable, thoughtful and memorable collection.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 27, 2018

The Wrong Heaven
by Amy Bonnaffons

  • Publication Date: January 14, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031651618X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316516181