Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Talya Jankovits

When I finished Elissa Schappell’s “Blueprints for Building Better Girls”, I was sort of jumping up and down in my seat. I wanted to shout out loud YES! You nailed it! I know its a keeper when I feel a bit heavy in the head and my writing heart is swooning and droopy, and of course, I know for sure when that leak of envy comes out – why couldn’t I write this? And I think the reason for all my fanfare is that Schappell was able to capture the girl and the woman that every one of us can relate to in some way. It doesn’t matter whether the story is set in the 70’s the 80’s, if its in a teenage bedroom or an arty New York studio, what does matter is the finite focus on the united emotions and right of passages that most of us can relate to. At moments, I blushed or cringed, thinking Schappell must have spied on me at some point. She didn’t, she spied on girlhood and womanhood collectively.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a series of short stories that hold soft echos of each others characters or glimpses of former character selves. The first story and final story, Monsters of the Deep and I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, share the same main character, Heather, but in the first story, we see Heather young at sixteen and in I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, we see her as a mother, speaking to her seventeen year old son about something that happened to her as a young woman. Throughout the stories, we see Heather in three different stages, teenager, college student and mother, and through it all we see Heather as Heather. She feels authentic and real, as if we have in fact stayed with an actual person who morphed and grew and retained a former self. Characterization is hard to do, but staying with a character in different stories at different times in life, while incorporating both flashback and memory–that’s called expertly executing craft.

Much like our younger selves, these characters are not all likable, in fact they are so raw and honest that I don’t think “attachment” to character is relevant in such a series of stories. While reading, I felt inserted into these characters, and I was willing to see where they would take me, even if I didn’t like it, and sometimes, the characters didn’t seem to necessarily like it either. The act of growing up, of coming to age (no matter how old we are, because on some level we are always growing up, always haunted by the smallness of our youth that hovers over us the rest of our lives) isn’t pretty or necessarily enjoyable and Schappell’s ability to narrow in on any girl’s life, be it that of a college student, a high school student, or a woman trying to build a family, makes these stories real, haunting and inexplicably relatable.

I like to believe that the reason I am a poor short story writer is because I am a novelist, (one novel in the works seems to allow me that excuse at the moment). I want to write great short stories like Schappell. I want them to be successful, to stand on their own, or like Schappell, for them to also stand together. A lot of times I try to understand what it is I am not doing right in my short stories that other successful short story writers are. Looking critically at Schappell’s short stories, I tried to find tools that can help me build better short stories (no pun intended). Schappell has the ability to place you in real moments, to vividly build scene without spending too much time doing so, with a few lines revealing something both wondrous and agonizing. And of course, she knows her characters, she knows them so well that she sees them in any stage, can reveal them in any age and utilize both the characterization and the plot to work together and deliver a punch. Her stories made me hungry until the end until a last devastating line left me full but craving more. That’s how you write a short story, or in my case, how you envy one.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Kate Maruyama

In Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell’s  characters all have something more going on than they are telling us. The stories are revealed in intimate detail, but in careful increments. Schappell is brilliant at ensconcing the reader in place, a teenage bedroom with Jacques Cousteau playing in the background, a drunken college campus, a quiet well-to do home, a starving artists’ view of New York City–then she starts peeling back the layers. By the end of each story, we are left as changed as the characters, with more to think about.

In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” Our heroine Beth, later B, later Lizzie, is in a mutually destructive self-aggrandizing artistic relationship with Ray, a painter. In his discovery of Beth’s “earlier self,” Ray creates her as playwright, as artist, as someone important, but can’t cope with her growth. He leaves her, but haunts her in later years and when Beth, now Lizzie runs into him again, she tries writing their story into a play. The problem is that in her version of the story, Ray dies. He’s a likely candidate, as he is now a junkie waiting for a heart donor. But when Ray doesn’t die, our narrator is left choosing the story over the reality. Within this one short story, Schappel creates a many-layered nostalgia littered with objects and random bits of art. Nothing is placed in this story accidentally. A stolen tube of cadmium red, and a Navajo blanket—one of the only things Ray takes with him when he leaves Lizzie–turns up at the end. Schappel also portrays the layers of love as seen through different ages and varying degrees of nostalgia. Lizzie’s view of Ray goes from starstruck and smitten, to re-smitten and nostalgic, to barely tolerant. Lizzie grows up, but Ray stays the same.

I am constantly investigating the various stages of love in my stories and novels, and Schappel is deft with managing love in its stages, fickleness and wistfulness. She has inspired me to peel back at least one more layer in what’s going on in my stories, to try to have things happening on different levels. So often I am stuck in the moment in front of me; pulling wires to get each moment to resonate through the others will take some work.

In “Are You Comfortable?” Schappel gives us Charlotte, home from college, knee deep in her WASP life. When her mother tells us that she has mono, we are pretty sure something more is going on with this girl. Charlotte is instructed to take her once intimidating and intelligent grandfather out for lunch—only now he suffers from dementia. He is the only one to whom she can come clean; she tells him of her date rape and how it’s destroyed her. Schappell is so careful in setting up this story, that we are lost with Charlotte in her day and her inability to get motivated to do much of anything. Schappell recreates the malaise of depression and jams it up against an old folks’ home and a pip of an old man who used to be intimidating. Things slide sideways as a simple trip to the diner becomes a mess and by the time we are delivered to the reveal, it is devastating.

Schappel has a way with final lines. So much has been written about opening lines, but the final line of a short story, once it has dragged you through the wringer, is every bit as crucial, if not more so.  We are left with Charlotte’s grandfather’s non-reaction to her enormous reveal. Her grandfather: “Peering out at the woods, hands pressed against the glass, he watched as the sun, red and round as a rubber ball, dropped behind the trees.” It was an enormous thing for Charlotte to tell her grandfather—but did it do any good? We are left to mull things over.

Another story’s last line:

“I wonder, when we’re done, what will be left of us.”

And:

“They stayed like that, not moving at all, until the streetlights began to come on.”

It is what our readers are left with, in short stories, that creates that final note. And that is seriously something I need to work on. Schappel had me going through my short stories and seeing those last lines as a missed opportunity. She has a facility with that last moment or image. That fade to black.

The characters in her stories overlap each other’s lives in a lighter way than in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but in a way that’s quite enjoyable and useful in each story where it happens. I didn’t recognize the repeats in character until halfway through, but they bump up against each other’s lives, each living on the periphery of another’s story. In “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” Belinda is a friend of Charlotte’s and worried about her after her rape, but doesn’t quite get around to helping her–directly. The story itself creates the deep-feeling, yet reckless college life; Charlotte’s being in that story shows the careless hold our well-intentioned selves have on the big things that happen at that age. And Charlotte’s predicament and Belinda’s concern over it forces Belinda’s paramour, Andy, onto a path he may not have otherwise taken.

I am always so eager to get onto new characters and new situations, I hadn’t thought of connecting them or repeating them other than to take characters in my novels out for a walk, hoping to jar something I couldn’t in the novel I was working on. But with Blueprints and Goon Squad, it is tempting to go back and ask some questions of these characters from other periods in their lives.

There are few short story collections I can read all in a row. So often I need to take a breather, a step away. The short story is a tricky medium and collections are trickier. But Blueprints for Building Better Girls was not only completely enjoyable, it was an absorbing page-turner that I finished within the week.