Sunday, March 13, 2016

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The laughs come rapid fire in Helen Ellis's new collection of witty short stories.

Laugh-out-loud books like this don’t come along too often. Helen Ellis published her debut novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, some fifteen years ago. Since then, she seems to have been struggling to produce a follow up. Three unpublished novels remain in her drawer. With American Housewife, Ellis returns to print with twelve acerbic short stories, all centring around the lifestyles of affluent American wives.

Some of the stories are no more than a page or so. In “How to be a Grown-Ass Lady” the narrator gives a long list of advice for the modern woman, finishing with “Don’t look at your profile because it’s not the mirror or the lighting or the time of day, it’s you.” Ouch! The longer stories (and none of them are more than about twenty pages) cast a sharp eye over such subjects as book clubs, reality TV shows, children’s beauty pageants and interior decoration. The last story, a zany caper where Tampax sponsor the author to write a novel, lampoons advertising and powerful corporations. It also mocks a writer’s anxieties over producing a word count and meeting deadlines. The nutty introduction into the story of a Paula Dean type life coach is completely out of the box and hilarious.

The laughs come rapid fire in American Housewife. Ellis writes fearlessly, delivering punchline after punchline. Her witty cracks and withering observations make the reader feel like a giddy ingenue taken out on the town by a sharp tongued sophisticate.

Margaret Atwood has written a favourable blurb on the cover. That’s rather apt, because Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, a dystopian comedy that is also a shrewd critique of contemporary life, has much in common with this collection, in both style and humour. Let’s hope that writing American Housewife has allowed Ellis to get her mojo back and that her next book won’t be another fifteen years away.

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. Published by Scribner. ISBN: 9781471153792 RRP: $29.99

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