I’ve been dipping in and out of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women for six weeks or so. With more than forty of the under-recognized fiction writer’s very intense short stories collected within it, the book is a lot to plow through all at once. Now that I’ve finished it, though, I have to confess that I need to read it again. Because I was reading only a few stories at a time, and reading other books in between–The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill and In My Humble Opinion by Soraya Roberts (about My So-Called Life!) among them–I didn’t connect the stories as much as I should have as early as I should have. Not putting together that many of the stories have the same protagonist, a woman whose life resembles the author’s in many ways, I missed out on a lot.
This is not to say that I was missing out on the stories’ individual brilliance–I wasn’t. And while there are some story fragments or slightly lesser works among these 400 or so pages, most stories really are genius. Berlin had a knack for picking just the right detail, for being unsentimental in the face of tragedy, and for landing an ending. I know some people are a bit critical of some of her “twist” endings, but I loved every one. In fact, near the end of the book, there’s a story called “Here It Is Saturday” about a creative writing class in a prison, that made me truly gasp out loud at the end. That’s a thing people say but don’t usually really do and I did. I can’t really explain why, because what was so awe-inspiring was the way that every narrative choice made in the story built up to the last line. If anything had been different, it might not have worked, but Berlin made all the right choices, and did it ever. You really have to read the story to understand.
“Grief” is probably the story that stunned me the most. About the two sisters at the heart of the book, Dolores and Sally, the story is actually told, in large part, through the eyes of two busy-body older women staying at the same resort as them. Mrs. Watcher and Mrs. Lewis nosily suss out the story behind the sisters’ odd, intriguing behavior for the reader. This story takes the idea of the unreliable narrator and raises it to the third power, and yet, amidst the conceit and humor, it manages to be poignant and devastating.
“Melina” is one of the stories that I can concede had a bit too telegraphed of a “twist” ending, but the writing was just beyond. I mean, so, so good. Check out this passage, which I had to post on Facebook the second I read it: “We talked about the important shoes in our lives. The first penny loafers, first high heels. Silver platforms. Boots we had known. Handmade sandals. Huaraches. Spike heels. While we talked, our bare feet wriggled in the damp green grass by the porch. Her toenails were painted black” (143). I mean, come on. It is visceral, funny, and particular to a time and a place. Plus, their feet are bare while they’re talking about these shoes; isn’t the implication that the narrator’s toenails aren’t painted something as spectacular as black?
I’ve never read writing about addiction and alcoholism like this in this book, and in some ways I think I didn’t realize what alcoholism even is until I read it. This is a book for the ages, believe the hype and pick it up. And don’t put it down and pick it up and put it down and pick it up–just keep going.