What sends us to our beds? Desire, sure. Sex. But also sickness. Sleep. Loneliness and healing. Jessica Keener’s Women in Bed is a collection of nine stories about women at all stages of life and wanting. Various degrees of acceptance. Each asking to be seen and heard. Each, “[craving], like questions yearning for answers.” Keener writes specifically of love. Romantic relationships figure prominently in the majority of the tales, but there is also a thread of development– the articulation of self–that runs from the first tale through the last, linking the women in her stories through the fundamental experience of what it means to be female. Her characters yearn to be noticed and understood, yet often have a hard time making themselves clear to the people around them.
In Women in Bed, Keener leads us through a lifetime of searching. Her characters’ lives, taken together, are social commentary on the arc of relationships over a lifetime. This is a collection about women who are students, women who are lovers, women who blur lines. These are women who look for ways to fill up the hours. These are women running away, women aching to be held. These are women yearning for validation. We come of age, our eyes “open to the world,” but what then? Keener suggests that we come into ourselves—with great difficulty—through the relationships we pursue from our college years into retirement.
There’s a steady rhythm to the opening story, “Secrets,” a tale of a young waitress’ fling with a customer who challenges her to break out of a rut. These are characters who speak in simple, direct exchanges. But they often don’t hear each other; they speak past each other, lost in their own agendas.
“I’m glad we met,” she says. I don’t like many people.”
“You don’t know me, I remind her.”
Though the heat from the oven smells good, it is hard to breathe. Her windows are high up and small.
“I’ll open the door,” she says. And we’ll eat. I hope you like chicken.”
“Is it safe here?”
“There was a voyeur.”
The meter of Keener’s characters’ speech shifts in each story; her ability to capture dialogue and its different variations is quite compelling, particularly the way she renders the variation in speech of women at different stages of life.
Like “Secrets,” the story “Shoreline” is another conversation between two characters that struggle to hear each other and to make themselves clear. “Shoreline” is about a married couple breaking up, but we also see them before, and after. Their messy beginning and end swirl into a moment of decision. Keener manipulates time through a series of italicized insets:
“When we got home, he watched the sports roundup. I went upstairs and hid the book in my sweater drawer. A steady rain was no time to drive people around, so I called the office for messages.
Every day the sweat breaks into a misty web across my breasts. Every day I cross this space, cross this sand, this problem between Jim and me. But the problem shifts without sound underneath, eludes me like the driftwood I see slowly twisting its way along the shoreline.”
She captures subtle shifts through subtext. Her prose is sparse and clean. She writes with as much attention to what is unsaid as what is.
My one disappointment with this otherwise lovely collection is that Keener relies heavily on analogy and metaphor, sometimes using intangible comparisons to render images that are already clear. Some of the metaphors she draws on—like the bird, for example—are so familiar that they don’t feel fresh. “Woman with Birds in Her Chest” is a delicate tale about Cynthia, a woman who retires from hard work in the healthcare industry only to find that her life lacks meaning. “It was hard getting air,” Cynthia thinks, “like birds flying in her chest, their wings caught in her ribs.” The inclusion of another story titled “Bird of Grief” soon after this one underscores Keener’s use of the same image and undermines its uniqueness in the first story. Keener’s writing style leans more toward metaphor and simile—something that I am sure some readers will enjoy and, probably, seek out. At times I just wished for her to be more direct, since the simple impact of her prose is powerful.
Keener’s women are most compelling when they take action: move, go after lovers, make poor choices. The two stories that deal with healthcare and hospitals, “Women with Birds in Her Chest” and “Recovery” are particularly poignant, as they explore the duality of giving and receiving care. The juxtaposition of these two stories shows how we find meaning outside romantic love, and Keener writes about the world of caring for the sick with an insider’s eye.
In the way that the traditional Bildungsroman chronicles the development of a character from youth to adulthood, Keener’s collection captures the essence of moving from one adulthood to another. Perhaps it is more fitting that we see this develop through the disparate lenses of her characters’ lives, as it is the accumulation of relationships over a lifetime that determines what our stories will be.