Bookmarks Issue: 

A-Blueprints for Building Better Girls.epsElissa Schappell is the founding editor of the magazine Tin House and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her first book was Use Me (2000), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

The Story: In eight linked stories, Schappell explores girls and women living--evolving, really--between the 1970s and the present day, with new "rules" that defy the pre-1960s feminist culture. Yet though novel blueprints exist, most girls and women find themselves grappling with age-old problems. In "Monsters of the Deep," a teenage girl struggles to balance sexual intimacy with a bad reputation; in "I'm Only Going to Tell You This Once," she is the mother of a teenage son about to make similar mistakes. Another tale, "A Dog Story," finds a married couple battling infertility and turning to their pet for comfort. At the center of many stories is Caroline, a college date-rape victim whose experiences touch everyone around her even as she becomes a wife and an ambivalent mother. And in all, a sense of female identity defines the protagonists' life choices.
Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780743276702

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Schappell also hilariously mines the American cultural landscape, revealing a world as confusingly changing as the characters themselves. ... Disarming, wickedly funny, and moving, these stories reveal girls and women on their way to becoming other people." Caroline Leavitt

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Schappell strives to build a broader arc to illustrate growth, but as each character founders under pressure, it becomes clear that women of the past 30 years or so are simply trading one set of expectations for another. ... The portraits are quietly realistic, funny and painful--and as rich as any characters in classical literature, including men." Michelle Moriarity Witt

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Taken altogether, an immediacy and intimacy are offered up in this generous collection. Schappell's commanding, honest prose taps into a deeper sense of story that promises to resonate with many readers." S. Kirk Walsh

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In their best moments, however, Schappell's stories acutely evoke the disorientation induced in women by our culture's barrage of mixed messages: Have sex and like it, but not too much. Dress up, make friends, but not in that place, not at that time of night. Be yourself; be the girl your parents, boyfriends, neighbors want you to be. Go to work but don't neglect the kids; stay home but don't complain of tedium, of dreams unfulfilled. Don't forget to smile." Jennifer B. McDonald

Critical Summary

The title of Schappell's second book comes from a 1963 etiquette book for girls, which symbolizes the difficult struggles women experience through their relationships and searches for identity. The interconnected stories, which generally work toward a larger whole, are humorous, bittersweet, and even tragic in their exploration of friendship, sexuality, mother-daughter relations, and motherhood. The "levels of self-awareness fought for by her characters always come at a steep price," notes the Charlotte Observer, and, indeed, if the characters are bold and flawed, they are nothing short of realistic. Only the New York Times Book Review faulted some "prefab" stories, but it conceded that for close readers, there are ample rewards in this volume.