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Book review

A doll’s house

Linked stories of women in transition unfold to reveal multidimensional characters

(Gwenda Kaczor for The Boston Globe)
By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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“Is this what you planned on?’’ “Is this what you wanted?’’ Those are just some of the thorny questions besieging the restless girls, troubled young wives, and discontented mothers in “Blueprints for Building Better Girls’’ Elissa Schappell’s knockout new collection of linked stories. The title, as one of the stories tells us, comes from a 1963 etiquette book for girls, and acts as a metaphor for the uneasy struggle these women launch as they tangle with themselves, each other, their children, and the men in their lives, on their way to what they can only hope is a truer life.

Unlike Schappell’s prior collection, the brilliant Pen/Hemingway finalist “Use Me,’’ which focuses on one character, “Blueprints’’ weaves in and out of the lives of various women over decades. Like a Venn diagram, the stories overlap, with the happy surprise of finding some of the characters reappearing in other stories, older but not necessarily wiser.

At the center of the book is Charlotte, a kind of touchstone, whose college rape not only transforms her life, but casts shadows on the world of her friends, affecting their own choices. Charlotte is so traumatized, she can’t talk about what happened that night, and instead she simply vanishes. She reappears in “Are You Comfortable?’’ as a young woman struggling to communicate with her grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s. Later, in another story, while on the playground with her new friend Paige and their kids, she wrestles with opening up to a person who might hear and understand her. Charlotte’s saga causes ripples among her friends. In “Out of the Blue and into the Black,’’ college girl Belinda can’t get Charlotte and what happened to her out of her mind, even as she herself is no stranger to “battered party girl syndrome.’’ But Belinda recognizes the difficulties of change after any traumatic event, for both Charlotte and for herself. “Everybody forgets who they used to be, and they become better people, even though inside they’re exactly the same person,’’ Belinda says.

Charlotte isn’t the only terrific recurring character. “Monsters of the Deep’’ introduces us to Heather, a good girl with a scuffed reputation, who can’t resist cruelty to her equally insecure lover, as if daring him to love her. In one of the book’s most disquieting stories, “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,’’ Heather reappears as an uneasy wife (she compares her marriage to being like two halves of a glacier, both at least still in the same water) and the mother of a love-drunk 17-year-old son. Unsettled that she is no longer number one in his life, she wants to break up this threatening new relationship. She begins to tell her son a cautionary tale about how a young girl “friend’’ (it’s her, of course) was torn between her boyfriend, Will, and his best friend, Jay, even as she was battling with Will’s controlling mother. The results are tragic, but in telling the story, she reveals how she wasn’t just that girl in the story, she has now become the mother as well.

What’s best about these stories are the voices, electrifyingly alive, funny, and thrillingly honest. You know these women, right down to the way they like their coffee. Schappell is an effortless stylist, spinning prose so intimate, that you feel like these women are leaning over a table boldly telling you their deepest secrets. Humor glints like mica. Jeans stiffen “into various stages of laundry rigor mortis,’’ and newborn photos are like “Wanted posters.’’

Schappell also hilariously mines the American cultural landscape, revealing a world as confusingly changing as the characters themselves. A city park metamorphosizes from a grungy drug haunt to a refuge for yuppie moms and their charges, complete with hollowed elephant statues that shelter kids (and make good hiding places for rats). Date rape and eating disorders and infertility rear their heads, and Schappell is especially good at describing the minefield of transitions. In one story, a couple battles infertility only to find their sad new dog is becoming their most profound relationship. In another, Charlotte and Paige, two young mothers, scrutinize each other warily before deciding whether they can become friends. Charlotte wonders whether she will be judged for having too many kids by New York City standards; Paige hopes that Charlotte works and has an identity beyond being a mom; and both think that motherhood is where “a hostage becomes attached to her captors.’’ When Paige asks Charlotte about motherhood, “would you do it again?’’ Charlotte’s inability to answer, her absolute shock, is the answer.

Disarming, wickedly funny, and moving, these stories reveal girls and women on their way to becoming other people. Despite the puckish title, there are really no blueprints for bettering ourselves, and in this wise and entrancing book, who we are is sometimes not even close to whom we yearn to be.

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at www.caroline leavitt.com.

BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS By Elissa Schappell

Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $24