If you’ve ever stood on a high ledge and felt the inexplicable urge to jump, or ruined a perfectly good relationship for reasons you can’t define, or felt like an imposter in your own life, you’ll identify with the flawed and reckless and vibrant women who populate Anna Noyes’s debut story collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Atlantic 2016). The women and girls in these stories struggle with destructive tendencies and horrible secrets as they confront issues ranging from mental illness to sexual assault to love or the lack of it. If that sounds bleak, it’s because Noyes does not flinch from heavy topics. Her stories are nuanced and unapologetic, revealing the shadow sides of women and girls in all their wild and terrible glory.
In several stories, women are surprised to find that their successful lives, complete with all the traditional trappings—marriage, career, homeownership—don’t bring them the happiness promised. They’ve done all the “right” things and have good and loving men by their sides, but their lives are still, somehow, hollow. These women aren’t satisfied. They have a fever in them that constantly pulls them away, or they just don’t fit the mold they’ve been forced into.
In “Glow Baby,” a mother shaves off her long hair and leaves with her daughter in the middle of the night in a wild grab at the freedom and possibility her life once held. In the title story, a daughter home from boarding school takes an impulsive road trip with her depressive mother and her mother’s abundantly sweet boyfriend who has cared for her for years, only to have her mother abandon him at a gas station hundreds of miles from home. These women try to love their men—they really try—but they can’t quite do it. Sometimes it’s with bold moves as in the aforementioned stories, and sometimes it’s in small, precise details that will resonate with most readers, even the happily married ones, as in this passage from “This is Who She Was”:
Maybe this night we stood in the shower and soaped each other’s backs and chests, and when I looked at him I said in my head, here I am, here I am, here I am, but mostly I looked at my hand as it soaped and thought about some other thing, like when would he move aside so I could have the hot water.
In other stories, the female protagonists try to force themselves into the marriage box for some sort of perceived security or salvation. In “Drawing Blood,” a young woman in the early twentieth century begins an affair with the family maid, only to marry her parents’ chosen suitor because it’s the only viable choice for a “normal” life. In “Homecoming,” a woman moves back to Maine with her almost-fiancé and tries to build a stable life to combat her depression. “I wanted to be claimed as a wife for the sake of my own tenuous survival,” she tells us. She clings to the fairy-tale ending—the beautiful wedding, her mother crying with happiness—even as she tempts fate to destroy it.
Throughout the collection, women feel like imposters in their own lives. In the standout opening story, “Hibernation,” a wife wonders what to wear when she reports her husband, who she’s just seen walk into the midnight water of the quarry holding a large rock, missing. “It was difficult picking out appropriate clothing for a woman who’d just lost her husband,” she tells us. Later, still stuck in shock as the sheriff tries to comfort her, she can’t muster the appropriate reaction and thinks of sad movies to try to make herself cry. In “Homecoming,” the narrator dresses up every day “in a pair of men’s jeans that I imagined a Maine farming woman might wear” in order to walk to the mailbox, which is pretty much the only time she ever leaves the house. They’re intentionally playing dress-up, play-acting their own lives in order to make them feel more authentic. But these women are too smart to be comforted by their own self-delusions. They can’t help but peer behind their own masks.
In one of the strongest stories in the collection, “Werewolf,” a simple party game sends a woman into a tailspin of doubt when it reveals to her the ease and grace with which she lies. It dredges up memories of a lie she told as a child, that her cousin with Down syndrome molested her with a stick, a lie that may have covered up for another half-memory of her sexual assault by one of her grandmother’s farmhands. She can no longer tell what’s true and what’s not, and she’s tortured by the implications. She’s done penance her entire life by striving always to be good: making good grades, being polite, finding the right kind of man, spending time with her cousin—now in a group home—every weekend without fail. But now even her goodness is uncertain: “What remains is the vague sense that what drives her to goodness is not purity, but rather some dark place that needs to mask itself, again and again.” This is where the internal divide with which many of these women struggle is most clearly and brilliantly rendered in the idea of the werewolf, this essential part of them that constantly bucks against convention, that doesn’t trust happiness, that makes them supposedly unlovable. The werewolf shows itself again in “Changeling” in the form of the shadow self:
I closed my eyes and pictured Gray and me in a bath together, lit candles and peace of mind. I’d grown up to be a real woman. And then I pictured my secret self, a self that diminished and diminished until I didn’t exist at all, and I had no one to love.
All this tragic material could drag a collection down, but it’s not without humor or hope. In “Hibernation,” the wife who has recently seen her husband disappear into the quarry tries to pray, but she doesn’t believe in the capitol-G God, so she makes up other names. “Honey Bunny, please,” she prays. “Please, Abraham Lincoln. Merlin. David Byrne.” It’s humor heavily tinged with desperation, but also with love, and that’s what makes it sympathetic. This is not a funny collection by any means, but Noyes does inject these stories with a touch of comedy and a large dose of compassion. The protagonist in the title story listens and responds to her mother’s boyfriend’s tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories with humor and tenderness. In “Changeling,” a woman finds nurture and comfort from a woman who looks like her mother on a bus. In “Treelaw,” a girl from a destitute and broken home discovers a kind of unconditional love from a friend and her friend’s mother, even after she betrays them. In “This Is Who She Was,” a young woman bonds with her boyfriend’s dying mother in a way she never did with her boyfriend, and it’s all instigated by a UTI.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you need happy endings, these stories aren’t for you. The women are nearly all left in liminal space—speeding down a highway, floating in a night-time quarry, riding in the windy bow of a lobster boat, forever searching the faces of addicts and prostitutes for a mother’s face. Noyes doesn’t offer tidy solutions for her protagonists’ struggles. Some readers will be turned off by this open-endedness and lack of redemption; other readers may find the stories depressing. But for many, these tender and brutal stories will pierce your core like a hook in the gut, shimmering with raw pain and heartache and the desperate desire to survive. Because despite the darkness in these stories, the women and girls within always discover something about themselves and grow a little bit stronger. They’re sometimes thoroughly lost, maybe irrevocably damaged, and uncertain what to do next, but in Noyes’s talented hands, you’re left with the certainty that these tough and wild and messed-up women are going to figure it out. They’re going to be okay.
Author photograph © Sean Hershey.