There is a certain time, maybe once a year, when a confluence of astrological events and a to-do list that rivals the Constitution reduces my attention span to near nothing. I bounce from one smartphone app to another — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — posting, checking, tagging. The one thing I cannot do is read a book. I have, for lack of a better term, reader’s block. You can give me the best book in the world and I’ll read the first paragraph 1,900 times, and the only thing I’ll remember is that I need to go to the post office.
The next time that happens, I’ll know what to do. Pick up Helen Ellis’s “American Housewife.”
Written in short and even shorter stories, Ellis structures her chapters as how-tos, lists, emails and some straight narrative. The book captures — and warmly lampoons — the scattered nature of modern life. The tales are also catchy, smart and very, very funny.
Ellis’s characters are all American housewives. They seem to be polished, proper pillars of their community — many of them from Manhattan’s high society. Think of the women in Wednesday Martin’s “Primates of Park Avenue” but more kooky than conniving.
In the story “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” the narrator explains the rules to a new member: “If you decide to join us, you can give yourself a Book Club name. We’ll laminate a bookmark with your new name on it. We’ll hole-punch a tassel. You can keep your bookmark in whatever book you’re reading. It doesn’t have to be a Book Club book. But your Book Club name will be a secret name that only we will call you. Trust me, you’ll like it. It feels like a dollar bill in your bra.” And speaking of bras, the housewife in “The Fitter” tells the story of her husband, the amazing brassiere fitter, whom she calls “pilgrimage-worthy.” In a mere two minutes, he can transform a woman “from Lurch Adams to Jane Russell.”
Ellis, a born-and-bred Southern girl who moved to New York City on her 22nd birthday (she is now 45), calls herself a housewife — and tweets, cheekily, using the handle @whatidoallday — though she is a novelist (“Eating the Cheshire Cat”) and a competitive poker player. In 2010, she played at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and won $20,000.
The housewives in her collection share Ellis’s wry sensibility. But as comical as they are — and they are very — these women also have a sly depth. What Ellis has done with her smart satire is very difficult: She’s poking fun but not making fun of her characters. In fact, they are very likable.
In my favorite story, two women — one younger and one older — engage in an email war over the shared elevator space between their two apartments. The younger woman really wants to update it, particularly with some wainscoting (she finishes one email message with the all-caps exclamatory “WAINSCOTING RULES!!!!!”), and the other woman wants no changes at all. Things escalate to the point of, well, death, and somehow we are satisfied.
Julie Klam is the author, most recently, of “Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without.”
By Helen Ellis
Doubleday. 188 pp. $24