Every six months or so for the past decade, I’d randomly type ‘Elissa Schappell’ into Amazon’s search bar and cross my fingers. I kept hoping and hoping that she had released a book that some how slipped by me. I fell in love so hard with her collection of linked short stories Use Me that I longed for something else.
When I spied Blueprints for Building Better Girls on some Fall 2011 release list, I bounced in my chair, fist pumping like a member of the Jersey Shore. I was excited.
I marched right into this collection of interlinked stories with nary a worry. Not once did it cross my mind that this book would be disappointing. I didn’t entertain the idea that maybe this wouldn’t live up to my memories of Use Me. I knew, knew that Elissa Schappell would deliver the goods.
And guess what good, kind readers? I was right!
While the connection between these connected stories is a bit tenuous, it didn’t bother me. The stories stand well-enough on their own and when one of the connections that didn’t seem obvious popped up I felt like I had insider information.
The stories are built around a handful of women and girls coming of age and coming to terms with being a woman in post-Mystique America. There’s rape and eating disorders and infertility and motherhood and sex and all the other issues modern women face. But each woman in the story is more than the issue du jour, they’re wanna-be marine biologists and HR directors and book translators and playwrights.
One of the stories in the collection is a telephone conversation between a mother and her anorexic daughter. The mom is trying to teach her daughter, over the phone, how to prepare a chicken for a date that night. It’s super sad and touching. When the mother realizes her daughter is preparing a Cornish Game Hen instead of an actual chicken your heart just breaks, and when the mother recounts her daughters dissent into eating disorders by remembering ages and birthday cakes I nearly cried.
In another story there’s a scene between a getting kind of famous playwright and her pseudo-boyfriend outside a bar that is so tense and devastating that you hold your breath as you reach each paragraph and when you finish reading the scene you’re gasping for air and filled with outrage. I don’t want to give it away, because it’s awesome.
I could go on and on about each story in the collection, pointing out the bits I loved, the scenes that made my pulse race, but I won’t. Instead, I will just tell you about Heather whose stories bookend the collection. Heather is a sexually active teen who is shunned for being ‘slutty’ and has a weird relationship with a kid who used to be shunned for being fat but has recently transformed into a hunky wrestler. In the first story we learn about their relationship. In the last story Heather is a grown-up now, a mother with a teenaged son who has a penchant for girls just like Heather used to be. She tells him a story about “a friend” who is really her and the two boys she ruined in college. The two stories the one you’re reading and the one Heather is telling is weird and kind of creepy, but good. And it ends with the best line ever, which is perfect not just for the individual story, but the entire book. “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl”