“A lady never swears.”
This Letitia Baldridge quote opens Elissa Schappel’s recently released collection of ironically titled short stories, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Why did Schappel, Vanity Fair contributor and author of the critically acclaimed Use Me, choose this particular quote? Not one of the characters who color these spirited stories is a lady, at least in this Letitia Baldridge sense of the word. These females are not the ever-pleasant, soft-spoken Grace Kelly and June Cleaver portraits of loveliness in pearls. These females swear, and then some.
Schappel gives us eight interconnected stories featuring these complicated women. We have sarcastic, smart Heather, who, in the first story, navigates a pseudo-relationship (the sex-filled, ill-defined non-boyfriend of today’s culture) with a classmate. In another, the depressed, anxiety-ridden Charlotte, home from college after falling ill with “mono,” wakes up from a visit to her senile grandfather. Despite its predictability, a story about a couple struggling with fertility issues manages to keep the reader’s interest with its warmth and humor. “According to tests,” the narrator says, “Douglas’s sperm count was average, the speed and mobility of his swimmers normal, ‘if,’ his doctors said, ‘a little on the sluggish side.’ Douglas said, ‘I prefer the term laid-back.’”
This snarky, darkly humorous voice, common to most all of Schappel’s characters, can be both endearing and irritating. At times, it feels gimmicky. “I like to call it my Houdini skirt,” a character says, “because it makes your butt disappear and you can slip out of it even in handcuffs. That’s a joke.” Statements like these drag down the literary quality of other moments in the stories: moments of surprise, of emotional investment, of humor.
And of course, in a collection of female-driven stories filled with female-centered issues, there is the inevitable one that tackles the oft clichéd eating disorder. In arguably the strongest story of the lot, and one that employs snark and sarcasm the least, Emily's mother reflects on her daughter's struggles with anorexia. The narrative then hinges on Emily’s desire to cook a chicken for what she calls “a suitor, Mommy. A gentleman caller.” When Emily calls her mother, her mother tells her she must leave. Emily cries, “No, no, wait! Don’t go. Please, Mommy? I’m begging you.” The urgent issue becomes a matter of cooking chicken, a foreign concept for a salad-chopping anorexic who lives three blocks away from her mother. Emily’s astonishing childlike dependence on her mother, regardless of her disease, acts as a sharp criticism on today’s 20-somethings.
“Don’t be a fool,” the book ends. “There is no such thing as just a girl.” With all its shortcomings, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is ultimately worth reading, as it deftly describes how, and even why, there’s no such thing as just a girl.
Reading time: You could breeze through at least half of a story in a particularly long Norbucks line.
Worth reading: Some of the stories worth it, others not. If you don’t mind the at-times gimmicky sarcasm, go for it. The collection will especially resonate with female readers struggling with the idea of what it means to be a woman.