We were intrigued when we heard that there was a new book out called Blueprints for Building Better Girls. So we forced Joe and Hazel to read it and then have an email conversation about it. That conversation, below.
JOE: Hi, Hazel! I guess we should get this started, eh? We both read this new book by Elissa Schappell. It is made up of eight short stories, told over the course of 288 pages. The cover of the edition I have is a pretty shade of red with a black cherry that has the title inside of it. (Oh, virginity?) I found it very alluring!
But before we get into the actual pages, I wanted to ask you about that title. What did you think when you first heard it, as a (better) girl yourself?
HAZEL: When I first heard the title Blueprints for Building Better Girls I assumed that the book was going to be entirely about girls—meaning female children and teenagers. But it’s really about ladies of all ages, and I loved that. I think the title is fitting, because all of the women in it—some teenagers, some college-age, some much older—are all girls, in the sense that they haven’t exactly decided who they are as people, what they’re doing, where they’re going, how they’re dealing with chaos. It’s as if they’re all going through puberty: they’re changing, and they can’t quite explain or deal with what’s happening to them. In one story you have a girl dealing with her rape and in another you have a young mother who may have just realized that she doesn’t want children. In another story you have an older mother who is looking back on her daughter’s life as an anorexic. All of the women in the book have problems, but they’re not problems that can necessarily be fixed.
JOE: As much as I liked the book, I did find the stories to be terribly, sometimes cripplingly, sad. I would finish one and have to roll over onto my back to catch my breath. I’d close the book, shut my eyes, and just sort of stew in the dysfunction. And yet! After a few minutes of centering myself, I’d pick it right back up and start on the next story. The writing is vivid and often beautiful, even in describing scary things, but I also wondered whether I wanted to keep reading because of a sick fascination with tragedy and other people’s issues. Each story built on the one before it in terms of seriousness until the last two, which were just sort of a knock-out blow of things going wrong. But they were also my favorites in the whole book! While I admire Schappell’s honesty as a writer—especially because the things she’s describing (eating disorders, drinking too much, infidelity) aren’t rare afflictions at all—I did wonder whether the book was too bleak. Did you ever feel like it just got to be too much? Do you think Schappell was warning women, like, LIFE IS HARD: HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS YOU’RE FORCED TO FACE? Or did you see some hope in there?
HAZEL: I don’t know if I could have read all of these stories in one sitting. If I read them all together I would have felt so depressed! Every story was sad, every story was bleak.
I found myself angry with many of the characters, for their weaknesses. I sympathized with all of them, but at the same time, after reading story after story of troubled women, I was aching for a role model, anywhere. Or at least an account from a girl who was happy and certain of her life. It could have used a little more hope. Just a little bit more.
JOE: But because of all that sadness, I think the title works as black humor. It’s sort of a subversive statement to say flatly: here are the things females deal with, even the best of them—caring mothers, elite college students, all across the spectrum. This is the farthest thing from a fairy tale! It’s interesting to me that a lot of the stories don’t have a typical ending—they’re more like snapshots of people’s intimate, secret lives. None of the characters meets a bombastic or conclusive fate at the end, they all just sort of keep surviving.
HAZEL: Yes! There is no perfect girl and you can’t become a “better girl.” All of the women in the stories are deeply flawed, but only by their own standards. Something is plaguing them (e.g., they can’t get pregnant, they’re never skinny enough) and it’s keeping them from being, essentially, the best girl they could be.
So to take this, a very dark (but often funny) book about how girls REALLY are, and slap a cheerful, totally fake title onto it is great! I almost wish the book were designed exactly like a fake 1960s debutante handbook or something, so from the outside it would look like a sickeningly sweet volume about girlhood charm, but then you open it up and discover this realistic portrayal of women with serious problems.
JOE: There’s a really good interview with Schappell where she talks about the moms in the book and says, “I don’t think mothers are invisible so much as their power is invisible. Like the term soccer mom. Who in the fuck is the soccer mom? She’s a sexless, jobless woman behind the wheel of an SUV, carting around a bunch of 10-year-olds.”
HAZEL: I think what she was trying to do was to write stories about women who are unexpected yet familiar in the sense that their actions surprise us and are “wrong,” but we relate to them because so many women are like these women. Like the mother in the book who regrets becoming a mother. I know mothers of friends who I can sense, I can just tell, that they didn’t want to be mothers. And the student who is raped, but everyone refers to it as “an accident” and nobody talks about it. Yet college students are raped every day, everywhere. It’s talked about, but it’s not talked about. It’s less about LIFE IS HARD and more about making us face that THIS IS WHAT’S NORMAL. That’s horribly grim, but it’s true. When Schappell asks, “Who in the fuck is the soccer mom?” she seems to be saying that that ideal is dead, or never existed. There is no “soccer mom” and if you think the American soccer mom is the “average female” then you’re wrong—the women in this book are the average American female.
JOE: This book reminded me of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, another book of short stories that can be a real downer and tends to focus on female relationships. I find myself thinking about that book all the time, and I think this one might end up the same way: not leaving my brain. Did this remind you of anything you’ve read before?
HAZEL: One of my favorite books of short stories is The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates. Although Oates’s stories are much more macabre and suspenseful than the ones in Blueprints, they are all exclusively about females of all ages. Each character in that book also holds a dark secret and is far from being a “soccer mom.”
JOE: Would you give Blueprints to your mom to read? Would you feel comfortable talking to her about the issues in the book? Tell me about mother-daughter relationships!
HAZEL: I would definitely give my mom Blueprints to read! My mother is a strong woman, and that’s probably why I find myself annoyed and confused by weak female characters. She’s hardworking, emotionally sound, and my number-one role model. I’m so thankful to have a mom that I can talk to about many of the issues in this book (we literally had a conversation yesterday about women who have children but are not ready to be mothers). Nothing is taboo between us, and I’m so grateful for that. I don’t know how many girls out there can to talk to their mothers about everything from nail polish to rape culture. I’ve said it a thousand times, but my mother is my best friend, literally. We’re like the Gilmores except BETTER.
But not every mother is like that. I know a girl with a manipulative and controlling mother. I know a girl who is a drug addict and treats her mother, who does nothing but care for her, like a doormat. I knew a girl who was convinced that her mother didn’t want her to be happy. Mothers are not perfect and they never will be. When I evaluate all the mother–daughter relationships I’ve encountered through my friends and acquaintances, I realize how lucky I am to have my mom as a mom. I LOVE YOU JUDITH DUPUIS!
JOE: There’s the hope we were looking for. (Hi, Mom. Bye, Mom!) ♦