‘American Housewife’ by Helen Ellis

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‘I’ve spent the last ten years coming up the bizarre, while my real life has grown more and more stereotypical’.

‘Dumpster Diving with the Stars’ in American Housewife by Helen Ellis, Pg.44

As I mentioned previously, I bought Helen Ellis’ collection of short stories, American Housewife, at the amazing treasure-trove that is Shakespeare & Co. in Vienna (possibly the closest decent bookshop to where I currently live). I then devoured it quickly in one sitting during my flight back to the UK for Easter. Each page was full of new revelations and surprises. From the light-hearted to the deranged, Ellis peppered each story with a unique sense of humour that I haven’t experienced before in a short-story collection. I was amazed by how dark, sinister topics – such as the perpetual murders of doormen by a megalomaniac housewife and an email correspondence between neighbours that gets wildly out-of-hand – were dealt with in a comedic, off-hand way, yet still packed a punch in the gut. Ellis certainly has a way with words that can lull you into a false sense of security and then leave you reeling in its aftermath.

Ellis’ premise is simple. Tales of American housewives in all their many guises permeate each story. From the ‘dumpster-diving’ author whose competitive spirit gets the better of her, to another author who is sponsored by Tampax to write a novel, to an almost-psychotic book club hostess and a wife who is married to the most coveted man in their small Georgia town, the characters are endlessly wacky and original. Yet, there is a seemingly familiar thread that links each story together – one that appears to be closely tied in the with Ellis’ own life from being an author with writers-block to being a housewife herself. However, biographical details are not what is important here. Ellis’ originality is wonderfully refreshing and each story offers unique female voices.

‘Dr Uh-Oh keeps Aretha highly medicated. You know the saying: happy wife, happy life? Dr Uh-Oh’s mantra is: you asked for it, muddle through. Like the majority of his patients, Aretha gave birth in her forties. She defied God’s will, she shouldn’t complain’.

‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ in American Housewife by Helen Ellis, Pg.90

As one reviewer put it – and I am inclined to agree – Ellis’ ‘deranged housewives channel […] Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic predilection for the grotesque’. Wildly outrageous and out-of-kilter, these American housewives often serve to hide more sinister undertones. In ‘Pageant Protection’ a young girl escapes the fate of pageant shows by running away from home – ‘it takes an army of pushers and pullers and toxic glue to keep you that way. And here’s a secret: beauty cracks like a mud cake’ (pg.152). In ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ there is the increasingly uncomfortable realisation that the new recruit may be signing away the rights to her own uterus in return for a bookmark. It’s this crazy, over-the-top quality to Ellis’ short stories that really shock and surprise you.

Although I read American Housewife over the space of a short plane ride, I wish I had taken more time to digest and savour each one. There is so much packed into each story – from the portrayal of every aspect of women’s private lives to how every part of a woman’s life is scrutinised in the media. These are stories that shouldn’t just be enjoyed for their entertainment factor alone, but for the striking messages they convey about twenty-first century life.

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