Three generations of women cope with isolation, grief, and sex, in the first novel by the celebrated story writer, Rachel Sherman.
If you ever find yourself as the lead in a Rachel Sherman story, beware. In Sherman’s fiction, more often than not, you’re a Jewish teenager, an insecure, lonely wallflower. You are not the prettiest girl in school—though your best friend may be. Instead, you’re burdened with dark, hairy eyebrows, and you can’t stop picking at your face. You pine for the blond football player named Chess or Ham, though of course he’s already taken. He may humor you. You may smoke with him in the woods behind school; he may tell you his secrets. And at home, you’re saddled with a strange, Swedish au pair, a person so foreign he might as well be extraterrestrial.
Sherman’s debut novel, Living Room, is the story of a family in crisis, told from the perspectives of three generations of women. There’s Abby, the archetypal Sherman teen, who flirts with popularity to avoid troubles at home; Livia, her mother, who struggles with unfulfilled career aspirations and a strange eating disorder as her marriage unravels; and Headie, the grandmother, who is approaching senility, a new Mac Book providing her only link to the real world.
Each character inhabits a different living room: Abby and her friends smoke out on a dilapidated couch in the woods behind school; Livia redecorates the home of a wealthy lesbian couple on Lloyd Neck; and Headie confines herself to her living room carpet. These private spaces are highly valued and carefully guarded. They give the women a place to escape from their lives and a place to project their fantasies.
Often praised for her lack of sentimentality, Sherman doesn’t hesitate to capture her characters’ weird, unbecoming thoughts. She doesn’t sugarcoat adolescent experience, nor does she avert her eyes from painful or explicitly sexual scenes. Her characters push each other’s heads down while receiving blowjobs. They shout “Ha!” as they try to get inside one another. Female characters are often punished for their innocence—their initial encounters with men are rough and unromantic, never failing to leave a mark. And sex isn’t the only subject rawly depicted in Living Room: grief, cruelty, and claustrophobia are all depicted with great skill.
Yet to many fans of Sherman’s work, Living Room may seem a bit familiar. The novel recycles themes and characters from her 2006 short story collection, The First Hurt, as if the title story had been expanded into a novel, its acne-stricken narrator, her grandmother, and her golden, lacrosse-playing crush all neatly transported.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with revisiting topics in one’s work. Recurring motifs like characters’ skin problems in “The Reaper” and “Jewish Hair” serve to unify the stories in The First Hurt. But by doing so, Sherman invites direct comparison between the stories and the novel. In a 2006 interview with Bookslut, she said, “I think that short stories come naturally to me. I guess I’m always interested in snapshots of life.” Her writing lends itself to the form: her story structures tight as fists, her prose terse and unadorned. Her best stories work because they focus teenage angst into one razor-sharp moment, the rawness of the subject matter enhanced by her stark prose.
Living Room, however, lacks the tautness and compression of those stories. This is partly an issue of proportion. Sherman’s short stories climax in small moments that hint at the characters’ interior lives: In “The First Hurt,” the narrator and her blonde crush cut class to smoke in the woods, but the moment is ruined when Ham sprains his ankle and then suggests that Sarah try a sport. This “helpful” suggestion may seem anticlimactic, but to the narrator it confirms, crushingly, that Ham doesn’t see her as a romantic prospect. Small moments like this abound in Living Room, but cannot build tension over the longer narrative. Instead, they flash and fizzle, in a series of telling sparks. Even the climax, which involves two characters’ simultaneous hospitalizations, is a little too expected, too pat, too high school.
Adolescent characterizations remain Sherman’s strong suit. Abby’s insights are fresh and revealing; her interactions with boys and with her mischievous friend Jenna are often scene-stealers. In contrast, the older characters seem lost in their quirks, their development arrested. Livia fixates on the sex life of her lesbian client, conscious of her breasts the way a teenager might be. Headie spends most of the novel crawling around on the living room floor, imaginary dancers twirling around her.
One of the novel’s most telling scenes occurs when Livia observes her daughter riding in Chess’s Jeep, smoking a cigarette and smiling. “For some reason it seems funny,” she thinks. This unexpected reaction reveals her sympathy for her daughter and the commonality Livia sees between Abby and her younger self. Otherwise, each generation seems isolated from the others, depriving readers of the insight that another character’s perspective could provide. As a result, despite moments of brilliance, Living Room remains in the shadow of Sherman’s short stories, exploring the same situations, the same configurations of loss and desire. For someone familiar with Sherman’s work, Living Room evokes a feeling of déjà vu, like entering a house with the same layout as one you’ve lived in before.