Monday, January 23, 2012

Building Better Girls

You may not have noticed, but there's a big "Blog Her" banner running along the top of this blog. When I signed up to be part of the Blog Her network, I didn't read the fine print on the contract, which said that 25% of these posts had to be original, i.e. not links to posts that run on other websites and in other publications. This morning, I received a pleasant little email from the folks at BlogHer, reminding me that I'm periodically supposed to post fresh material. I don't want to get thrown out of BlogHer, and not just because they throw a great annual conference in Manhattan. Women need women, writers need writers and I like being part of this group. With that in mind, here is fresh material. Thank you for reading.

Last weekend, I went with a group of women to a spa in the Berkshires. It was a lovely few days, full of vinyasa and restoration yoga, steam baths, clean towels, locker combinations, salad bars and hot food fixed by other people. My friend and I went for a walk in the snow one sunny afternoon but mostly we stayed inside. The weekend was a gift from my mother, who understands that mothers periodically need to get out from under. I didn't once put on makeup or wear anything but workout gear and sneakers. Though there were some men at this spa, the vibe is definitely women-friendly, with everyone sitting in the dining room, freely talking about menopause, hot flashes, weight, books, marriage, divorce, the better-looking masseuses, clogs, and salad dressing.

While I was there, I read one of the best books I've read in a long time, Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls. This is a collection of short stories, peopled by characters who get older and jump around the country. Many of them know each other. The stories revolve around the demands of female friendship, getting a bad reputation in high school, eating disorders (in girls and boys), rape, female promiscuity, the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters and mothers and teenage sons, infertility, infidelity, rescue dogs, and the bliss (or lack thereof) of marriage and child-rearing. This book was fantastic. It was brilliant, brave, and energizing, Some of it was gut-wrenching. In the middle of the story "Aren't You Dead Yet?," the narrator, a playwright, writes about an aspiring artist she's involved with and a play she'd written that he wanted to read. "I'd never written anything like that, nothing expressly female. Nothing that felt true like that. I mean, nobody cared about that stuff. Ray wanted me to read it to him."

If you are a girl, woman, mother or wife, or know someone who might turn into a mother or wife, read this book. Most of the characters are resilient women who are deeply unnerved by the challenges life has thrown at them. You'll probably relate to a few of them. In the story, "Elephant," two young mothers meet on a playground, exchange life stories and become close friends. This was one of the saddest and most memorable descriptions of the pitfalls of marriage and child-rearing, and the importance of female friendship I've ever read. The story rips your heart out.

I gave one of the stories, "The Joy of Cooking," to a writing class I taught last semester. The story is narrated by a divorced, middle-aged mother, who attempts to give cooking advice to her anorexic daughter. Both mother and daughter cling to each other but are also trying to forge new lives for themselves. For various reasons, none of the students in my class liked the story. I loved it. The mother-daughter jousting felt familiar but fresh and funny. You learn what it's like to be in a clinic for girls with eating disorders. And though there was a sad undercurrent running through the story, it also makes you laugh out loud.

This whole book was pleasantly disturbing. Buy it for yourself or take it out of the library and discuss it with your sister, your mother, your daughter, your book group, your friend.


  1. I am going to download this book pronto, sounds fascinating!

  2. I hope you like it! The first story, "Monsters of the Deep," is the weakest but it is linked to the last story, "I'm Only Going to Tell You This Once," which was one of the best

  3. Laura, it's been a long time, I'm sorry to say, that I feel up to actually sitting down (for anything), especially reading, but this really makes me want to get this book.

    btw, look to your left and see all you've done. It's really INCREDIBLE. The site looks awesome. Even worth being hassled to write even more by Big Sister!


  4. That does sound like a worthwhile book, Laura, thanks for the rec. And the spa trip sounds fantastic!