I feel weird about this book. In some ways, it’s everything I want to read and everything I want to do. It is a collection of linked stories–not all linked to each other, but most linked to one or two others at least; this is my favorite genre and Schappell does it well. Each story stands on its own, but reading them together sets off certain sparks, little electric pops of connection. Thematically, the stories do something I often strive to do, and something I feel strongly about–they treat issues like sexual assault, anorexia and cutting as if they are integral to girls’ and women’s lived experiences. To the demographic of contemporary white, college-educated, Brooklyn-inhabiting women Schappell writes about, this is the case. Sometimes writers treat the rape, or the disease, or the scar as if it is the story–in reality, the story is about a lot more.
My favorite story in the collection, “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” takes place in the world of a college student in the midst of all kinds of poor choices and debauchery. The narrator, Bender, has a lot of problems, not the least of which is a black eye she doesn’t remember sustaining. She and her group of friends have had their social group destabilized by the recent rape of one of their members, a woman who doesn’t actually appear in this story–though she does in other stories, including my second favorite story “Are You Comfortable?”–because no one can figure out how to act around her and so de facto ostracize her. The story takes a number of turns that are surprising, but only shocking if you’re adult enough to have forgotten the way a brain works at that age.
I love how Schappell explores the negotiations of female friendships and often places them above or on par with romantic relationships. She exposes many of her characters’ insecurities and vulnerabilities surrounding issues of sexuality and identity; she isn’t afraid to have them make very poor, but very real, choices. Because of the format she’s chosen–linked stories–she is able to show layers of repercussions and years of fall out. The reader can understand and connect a moment in the late seventies to a conversation among different characters twenty years later.
So why do I feel weird about this book? I wonder if it is timing. Looking back, I really like the stories that revolve around high school and college-aged people. The stories that have aspects to them that irk me are the ones that center around mothers in their thirties or forties. All of the protagonists in this book inhabit a world of privilege in terms of race, class, education, and more; their conflicts, vulnerabilities and dramas all stem from this world. I don’t have a problem with this–this is the world I write about and within. But, I think that a certain filter of perspective is important. Perhaps with the stories about the young women, I have the perspective of age through which to view them. I’ve processed this phase of life and can look at it with context. With the stories of the adult women, maybe because I don’t identify with them yet (by the way, I am well aware that I have as much or more in common with the mother of a four year old than with a college student at this point–my friends are having babies left and right) I have a harder time contextualizing what I can’t help viewing as self-involvedness?
It isn’t hard for me to make the intellectual leap that becoming a mother could fall into the same category of issues I listed in the first paragraph. I can imagine feeling it myself, or even more, I can imagine a story that would make me understand someone who feels that way. These stories, though, seemed less narratively complex yet more emotionally heightened than the others in a way that felt, to me, false or at least exaggerated.
I’d love to hear what mothers who have read this book think–will I feel differently someday?