Sideways Review: From Reading to Empathy
~4th in a series
“This woman gets women,” I told the waitress at Ortine, a French-Canadian restaurant in my neighborhood, in between handfuls of curried popcorn. I was pointing at my copy of Elissa Schappell’s linked short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
We’re friendly, this waitress and me. She wears a thick headband and I bet she’d be great at roller derby. I would cheer her on from the sidelines. Before taking my order, she wrote down the author’s name.
“Just read the first page,” I said, and handed her the book. I would hand it to many other women that week. The lead story, “Monsters of the Deep,” begins:
“I love you,” Ross says. I laugh, “You don’t even know me,” and he looks startled, like I’ve just exploded something in his face. He sinks back against the pillows, confused, like maybe he read the manual wrong. Aren’t all girls supposed to want to hear this?
The roller derby waitress laughed. I laughed too. The Ross character and the narrator’s response were overly familiar. I told the waitress she had to read the book. Had to. Believe it or not, I don’t say this very often.
When the narrator, Heather, explains to her mother why her old friends don’t come over anymore, she asks herself:
Why didn’t I wear the lipstick that changed with your mood, or the iridescent blue eye shadow that looked like it was made from the ground-up wings of endangered butterflies? Why didn’t my mother ever tell me not to talk to other girls’ boyfriends?
I felt drawn to the narrator—not because I was Heather per se in high school but because I felt as confused as she did about intimacy, reputation, and navigating female friendships. My too short, too tight dress for freshman winter formal branded me a slut. I skirted study groups and shopped—or shoplifted—alone. I spent every lunch with my boyfriend until he became my ex. Then when I waited for The Girls in the lobby, I didn’t understand why there was no room for me in their car.
Elissa Schappell read from Blueprints at Dumbo’s Powerhouse Arena, and within twenty minutes, she’d assumed a place on my altar of literary heroes. Like the rest of the crowd, I’d been drinking Brooklyn Brewery beer all evening, which gives the event a sheen in retrospect, not blurry, not magical, but slightly undefined and packed with superlatives—her performance was powerful, her confidence palpable.
A boy I’d met the week before dropped his beer under a table decorated with hipster stationery. We watched as it washed over the concrete floor.
“That didn’t happen,” I said.
“I hope not,” he said. I think that’s when we made out. In the middle of Powerhouse Arena. It wasn’t yet 9:00.
Hours later I revealed our almost ten-year age gap. He said it didn’t matter, but we both knew that it did. He never blurted out that he loved me. I never rebuked him. But we pledged to give this our all, swore that hearts were meant to be broken, welcomed every romantic misconception.
Like the real, live, very human girls of the world, Schappell’s female characters get to be ugly, annoying, insistent, depressed, compromised, childish, and judgmental. Her heroines wear silk slips to the farm bar at 4:00 am. They don’t know how to talk about “it,” the rape of their closest friend. They try to save their sons from bewitching girls who remind them of themselves. They get to let people down, not follow the rules, not even know the rules, and still deserve—no, earn—our gratitude, for what they’ve given us. Though I’m not a mother, I could have been any iteration of the girls captured here; we all lacked blueprints, and there is likely no better version of us.
Erika Anderson has just finished a memoir about a murder-suicide in college and holds an MFA from VCFA. She talks to the real, live, very human girls of Brooklyn and Manhattan. For more about Erika, visit with her. For more from Erika, read another sideways review and her craft essay.
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