The stories in Helen Ellis’s American Housewife feature a delightful cast of disturbed and disturbing women struggling with the banalities of domestic life. These women are often malicious and sometimes murderous, acting on vengeful and spiteful vendettas with a macabre hilarity. But they earn the reader’s sympathy through comedy and by playing to our basest desires for petty revenge.
The opening story, “What I Do All Day,” sets the tone of the collection: the unnamed narrator lists her day’s mundane activities. She is frightened by her husband’s coat hung the wrong way in the closet. She masks the fear of her own loneliness with concern for the loneliness of the women answering the Butterball hotline. The narrator struggles to justify her day’s routine, and by extension, her existence.“What I Do All Day” relies on Ellis’s impeccable comedic voice and her nearly perfect balance between levity and despair. Her humor provides structure even in the absence of plot:
I break into a sweat when I find a Sharpie cap, but not the pen. I answer my phone and scream obscenities at an automated call. I worry the Butterball hotline ladies are lonely. I follow a cat on Twitter and click “view photo” when a caption reads: “#YUCK.” I regret clicking that photo. I weep because I am lucky enough to have a draw just for glitter.
Ellis’s housewives have, if nothing else, obligations. “Being a wife is a commitment,” says the narrator of “Dead Doorman.” Her primary responsibility is eliminating problematic doormen in her luxury condo building. She slices them up and hides them in her freezer until they can be fully disposed of. But she’s only doing it to help her husband’s position as president of the condo association. The men and women in Ellis’s stories are mutually dependent on each other. But the women are always sacrificing on behalf of the men. The narrator’s comfortable life comes at a cost. She and her mother-in-law make a pact not to seek fertility treatment and to eliminate any children should such an accident arise. “This building’s your baby,” the mother tells her son. The narrator sacrifices motherhood for the comfortable life of a housewife.
Housewives are not the only women populating American Housewife. The narrator of “Dumpster Diving With the Stars” is a writer. She has not written a word in fifteen years. Incidentally, fifteen years have also elapsed since Ellis’s debut novel Eating the Cheshire Cat. Such a gap might raise the question of authenticity. Does a writer deserve the title even in periods of non-production? The writer narrating “Dumpster Diving With the Stars” is a reality show contestant, one among a a cast that includes Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend, a famous scientologist couple, and John Lithgow. As a writer, and one who has not lately published anything, the narrator acutely feels her outsider status among film and television stars:
I’m in Rhinebeck, New York, to compete on Dumpster Diving with the Stars. It was my best friend Amy Madeline’s idea. In the history of celebrity reality shows, there has never been a contestant who is famous for being an author. Between Amy Madeline and me, hers is the name everybody knows. Her books are pastel with shoes or purses on their covers. They are book club books. Beach books. Like some women produce babies, Amy Madeline has a book come out of her every year. I published one book, fifteen years ago, but it was a doozy. What they call a “cult classic.” Meaning the book was odd, but identifiable, and is now out of print.
Despite her apprehension, as a writer, she ultimately is positioned to win the game precisely because of her unique knowledge base—books.
Another novelist in the collection is struggling to complete a successful manuscript. The narrator of “My Novel is Brought to You By” has signed a contract to write a novel for Tampax. The story is an allegory for writing a novel. Ellis has yoked the deeply intimate act of menstruation with the equally personal act of writing a manuscript. The Tampax account manager, Lisa, hounds the novelist for updates and manuscript drafts. But Lisa is not a book editor. She is a corporate agent who is focused more on the production of words than the quality of the manuscript. The novelist, for her part, is distracted by social media and under immense pressure to find financial success. Eventually Lisa becomes an enforcer of the terms of the contract, revoking the novelist’s car and even access to her husband. For the narrator, the cost of producing a manuscript is her individual freedom and personal relationships.
Ellis has a superb ability to build narrative from a singular voice, and in American Housewife these voices belong to compelling women who continually surprise the reader. They challenge what it means to be a good wife, a good housewife, and a good woman. Ellis credits her husband as the inspiration for all husbands in the collection who are good. But if any of their doormen disappear, he might want to check their freezer.