Elissa Schappell, Blueprints For Building Better Girls

Brooklyn resident Elissa Schappell’s second collection of short fiction borrows its title from a much older (and possibly invented) book of the same name. The 1963 version of Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a dowdy etiquette guide, one that implored upstanding female citizens everywhere to “take a firm hand in shaping the lives and characters of our young women.” This older generation was just starting to see a glint of what would later be called second-wave feminism in the eyes of its juniors, and some didn’t like it one bit.

Too late: as Schappell’s character quips, from the safety of a few decades later, “Uh-oh, the burning bra is about to hit the fan.”

It’s a useful wormhole to keep in mind, since the women in Schappell’s Blueprints are still very much struggling with the consequences of those bra burners. Some consciously, others less so. But whether they’re interrogating ideas of sexuality (“Out of the Blue and into the Black”), motherhood (“Elephant”), or even basic independence (“Aren’t You Dead Yet?”), these eight linked stories all illustrate just how unstable the signifier of woman is in our society, still.

For the most part, the stories are well constructed, and the women at their respective centres easily complicate and rewrite the usual clichés about female characters in fiction. The narrator of “Monsters of the Deep,” the collection’s first and strongest piece, is a teenager who’s been publicly branded a slut (for wearing a leotard to school, horror of horrors). In practice, she turns out to be loyal and monogamous, wounded by her reputation. But the real humanizing twist, the one that explodes the binary, is how she lashes out at her secret boyfriend—recently overweight, now muscular but “doesn’t know how handsome he is yet”—using exactly the same kind of sexual cruelty she’s been blindly accused of having. Cornered into an unflattering identity, she seizes it, and puts her own pyrrhic spin on it in the process.

Alas, that story hits a high water mark the rest of the collection can’t match. Gender stereotypes continue to be overthrown—but, all things considered, isn’t that a pretty low standard to hold authors to? Shouldn’t we be asking a little more of them by now? As such, Schappell’s stories connect intellectually, but rarely with the kind of page-turning immediacy that they might. The same goes for the loosely linked approach: it’s neat to spot cameos from characters in other stories, but no more than that. At times it’s just distracting.

And sometimes the plots themselves are so beholden to the Laws of the Short Story that they wind up, frankly, ridiculous. In “Are You Comfortable?”, a girl kidnaps her grandfather, whose memory is failing, from his assisted-living home in order to confess, for the first time, that she was raped at a party. Nobody would behave this way in real life. We’ve been long conditioned to accept this kind of ginned-up scenario as possible, when it should really trip every red flag we’ve got.

Or how about “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once”? Here an adult version of the girl from “Monsters of the Deep” stops her teenaged son from going out with his too-old girlfriend to tell a long, thinly veiled story from her own past. But rather than grow irritated and leave, which would be the actual response of every flesh-and-blood teenager, the son transforms into an enthralled child again. He asks for details at exactly the right times, and somehow never sees through the paper-thin conceit of his mother’s tale. Please.

Schappell’s framing story does end on a solid note, asking tough questions about blame and fidelity—and to both mother and son alike. But surely there are faster, less tedious ways to get there.

Simon and Schuster, 304 pp, $27.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, October 9, 2011)
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