I haven’t revealed my books of the year in gradual fashion before, but when I started compiling the list for 2016, I realised that I still have a goodly number to review. (Reviewing falling victim to time constraints at literary festival time.) So I shall spend this week putting that right, starting with the short story collection of the year, the hysterically funny read of the year and the best first liner of the year. Contender for my book of the year? Most definitely, although I have yet to make my final decision. (It is a close run thing.)
Let’s roll back to the first line of the first story in American Housewife, entitled What I Do All Day.
Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.
It tells you all you need to know about the housewives in this collection. These ladies are sassy, full of attitude, and not at all ashamed of their status in life. In fact, you could say they are rich housewives on steroids! As Ellis said at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, “I became a housewife, and realised it was a really good gig.” Taking inspiration from the author, none of her creations want out of their lot in life, and why should they? The home is their castle, and let no-one mistake this, they are the queens of their castles and they will do anything, and I mean anything, to defend them.
In fact, The Wainscoting War is a literal turf war over the decor in the common hallway. When Angela Chastain-Peters moves in, she decides she would like to remodel the hall and advises her new neighbour of such in her first email, ostensibly a thank-you note for a welcome gift. In actuality an opening salvo in the war for dominance. Well how would you interpret the following?
Hi neighbour! Thank you for the welcome gift basket you lefy outside our apartment door. My husband and I don’t eat pineapples … But we appreciate the gesture. We gave the pineapples to the super, who said he’d ask his wife to ask you for your recipe for pineapple-glazed ham. Apparently you make one every Easter that makes the elevator shaft smell like a barbeque. WOW!
The resulting battle between neighbours is laid bare in the email trail that follows. Petty and catty as it may be, there is a deadly intent in Angela Chastain-Peters that is not to be thwarted.
I’ll mention just one more story in detail, otherwise I’ll find myself re-reading the whole book. In Hello! Welcome to Book Club, a new member is welcomed by the hostess, Mary Beth. The name is a pseudonym, a book club name. At first, this seems like a quaint idea, but as Mary-Beth introduces the other members and their reading tastes, something darker and altogether more desperate emerges. For Mary-Beth is as indiscreet as they come revealing the histories and secrets of each woman. It’s a one-way conversation. To give you a flavour
Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bankruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.
You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?
That turns out to be true and not having experienced the 4th is the reason for the new recruit’s initiation into Book Group, because she is there to serve a purpose ….
Contemporary culture such as celebrity reality TV and child beauty pageants are pilloried. Ellis’s satire is as ruthless as that of her narrators. Laugh out loud funny in places and yet merciless in revealing the darker edges and emptiness beneath exterior surfaces. Other stories (Southern Lady Code and How to be a Grown-Ass Lady) are lists, comprised entirely of tweets from the author’s twitter account @whatidoallday. The final story is one of a writer battling writer’s block. Interestingly this is something Ellis has struggled with herself. She has said that becoming a housewife helped her find her voice. Who would have thought that the 4-letter words I hate – dust, wash, iron – could be such fertile ground for the imagination?