‘Did Candy tell him she was in love with you?’
Sam walks over and places his hands on my shoulders. Then, looking me square in the face, he says, ‘You don’t know her like I know her, Mom.’
‘Is that so? I have looked into Candy’s eyes, and the girl looking back is very familiar. I don’t trust her.’
Look into the eyes of any one of the women whose stories Elissa Schappell tells in Blueprints for Building Better Girls, and you, too, just may find someone familiar looking back at you. It may be your past or present self, your mother, your sister, your best friend, your college roommate, or even that girl you didn’t know very well and always wondered what became of her…but read this collection and you will recognize her, instantly, over and over again, in ways that move you to the core.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls tells the interconnected stories of tough yet vulnerable, questioning and conflicted women at various times in their lives, from adolescence through motherhood. Schappell holds nothing back; the stories are raw, often heartbreaking and always resonant, covering the terrain of relationships, marriage, conception, motherhood, self-image, high school ostracism, eating disorders and assault.
Among my favorites was “Are You Comfortable,” in which we meet Charlotte, a young woman who has dropped out of college for as-yet undisclosed reasons; she finds she has much in common with her grandfather who has dementia. Because he, too, understands what it is to be lost, he becomes the only one she can confide in.
“The Joy of Cooking” explores the relationship between a mother and her adult daughter — who has a history of anorexia — through an emotionally charged telephone conversation. Through the mother’s cautious words, you can feel the perilous fragility of both of the relationship and the daughter’s physical and mental health. In a very moving passage, the mother remembers the daughter’s birthday cakes, year by year, one by one from the present back to the past, each choice of cake mirroring their family history and a stage of her daughter’s disease.
“Elephant” is a story about a friendship between two new mothers struggling with their changing identities. Some readers may recognize Evie, the main character of Schappell’s earlier collection Use Me, in a brief cameo appearance. In “Elephant,” Evie is rejected by one of the young mothers, and we see Evie anew through Paige’s eyes: “She didn’t know if Evie had always been emotionally promiscuous or if it was the grief talking. It was like she was infected by sadness, and as a carrier she made everyone around her sad. Which seemed reckless and a little selfish to Paige.” Evie’s presence, though fleeting, is significant: the stories in Use Me were all about Evie during a relatively narrow and self-centered period of young adulthood; the stories in Blueprints cover a broader, more complicated emotional range, reflective of time, changing roles, middle age and parenthood, conveying far more depth, nuance, perspective and maturity.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls is one of those books that, if you are like me, you will find hard to put down. When you finally do, you may find yourself pressing it upon your closest friends: Go read this book. Go read it right now.