American Housewife by Helen Ellis


American Housewife is a collection of short stories written by Helen Ellis, who has previously published a novel titled Eating The Cheshire Cat. I don’t often read short story collections but I had heard a lot about this one when it was originally published in hardback last year, so I was looking forward to reading it.

‘I massage my gray roots. I smoke my eyes. I paint my lips. I drown my sorrows with Chanel No. 5.’

The collection is comprised of twelve stories all focused around housewives. Within these stories Helen Ellis explores the idea of an American Housewife, how they live their lives, and how they protect what they value the most. And their individual stories are pretty surreal and sometimes disturbing with extreme behaviour leading them into some bizarre situations in their quest to get what they want. They explore the traditional, stereotypical gender roles and expectations of a wife – that of maintaining a home and remaining fiercely loyal to their husbands. But alongside this there are more contemporary elements such as the modern day fascination with celebrities and reality TV shows which feature prominently in the story ‘Dumpster Diving With The Stars’ in which an author hoping to revive her career finds herself sharing the screen with a sweet natured Playboy bunny. There is also a melancholic tone to this collection, as it looks at the pressures women may face to look a certain way, to keep up with the latest culture and fashions whilst maintaining a perfect home life. What is clear in all of the stories is that modern women are not to be underestimated, and these unusual tales include their sharp observations and wit.

‘I put the first batch of oatmeal raison in the oven and then return my attention to Eddie. I turn on my radio. Dismemberment and freezing are the priorities.’

As with many short story collections there are a few standouts and for me there were  three that I particularly enjoyed. The first of these was ’The Wainscoting War’ which is told through the form of email correspondence between two women regarding the decorating which soon spirals into an all out war. I also enjoyed ‘The Fitter’ in which we are introduced to a bra fitter who works alongside her husband and has something in mind for one of the clients. And finally ‘Dead Doormen’ which as its title indicates is a particularly sinister tale in which a wife approaches a murder as if it is as trivial as baking a batch of oatmeal. Whilst these were the highlights some of the stories for me seemed more like collections of thoughts as opposed to fully formed stories but they were nonetheless entertaining to read. These include ‘Southern Lady Code’ in which commonly heard phrases are given their real meaning, and ‘How to be a grown-ass lady’ which lists various pieces of advice from one woman to another. The writing style is similar throughout and I liked the fact that there was a sinister tone to some of the stories but also plenty of humour with little details littered throughout that I could relate to or made me smile.

All in all this was an enjoyable read that brings together snippets of the lives of some extraordinary women and all the secrets, hopes and desires that they carry with them.

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