Mini-Review of American Housewife by Helen Ellis
If you’re looking for a collection of contemporary short stories that explore themes of feminism, domesticity, marriage, career, and the general idea of women “having it all,” American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis is an excellent choice. I wasn’t sure what to put in this book review and discussion guide of Helen Ellis’ American Housewife. I didn’t think I’d like the short story collection, but I came away loving it, imperfect though it was.
I loved how dark it was, how macabre some of the humor was. It is a fairly short book and easily digestible. I had not read a short story collection in a long time, but this made me request several short story collections from the library. Sometimes I feel like an American housewife myself since I work from home and take care of my parents. I cook dinner and most meals for them and do chores. If I’m married to anything, it’s my work (and my cats!).
Let’s get right down to a synopsis and critical analysis of American Housewife.
Book Background + About the Author
The short story collection American Housewife: Stories by American author Helen Ellis is 185 pages long in its first hardcover publication in January 2016 by Doubleday (Penguin Random House). Several of the stories previously appeared in magazines or online journals such as: Blue Mesa Review, The Baltimore Review, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and The Normal School.
Helen Ellis is not only a novelist (of Eating the Cheshire Cat) but also a professional poker player. Helen Ellis can be found on Twitter. Her American housewife persona tied to the book @whatidoallday with the hashtag #AmericanHousewife.
Summary + OverviewAmerican Housewife is a collection of 12 short stories all centered around the idea of the American housewife. This concept is interpreted loosely, and Helen Ellis bends our definition to show the reader the variations of housewives. Some stories are short, only a few pages, a couple of them no more than two or three pages long, and some are lengthier, more than 10 or 20 pages.
The housewives profiled in Ellis’ stories include widows entrenched in their apartments with a vicious distaste for young and polite neighbors; women who go to extreme lengths, like participating in a reality TV show, to support their husbands and recover some sense of dignity; aggressive book club leaders who lead other women adrift in a sea of conflicted feminism; and more.
The subjects are not limited to domesticity and marriage, nor are the narrators or main characters of each story housewives; one delightful flash fiction short story is from the perspective of house cats.
Here is a brief description of the 12 stories in American Housewife.
- What I Do All Day – This is a brief story that answers the question that many stay at home wives and mothers get: what do you do all day? The narrator judges herself harshly against society’s expectations of herself and her own high standards of what she should vs. should not be doing.
- The Wainscotting War – This story is told entirely through emails, making it an epistolary story. A new neighbor in an apartment building suggests then demands changes to the hallway from a three-time widow who is committed to nothing ever changing. Their conflict escalates until it seems the roles are reversed.
- Dumpster Diving with the Stars – In this story, the narrator is a writer who’s a bit of a one-hit wonder after her debut novel was a success only to lose steam on her second. She takes part in a reality TV show to try to win back some form of identification.
- Southern Lady Code – This story examines the vocabulary of Southern women and Southern housewifes. This story is all about perception: when one woman says something to the other, it might have a totally different subtext. For example, “‘What do you think about her?’ is code for: I don’t like her” (p. 73).
- Hello! Welcome to Book Club – This story has an air of quiet desperation about it. A book club member welcomes a potential member to an exclusive book club, which is actually less about books and more about the challenges women face, young and old.
- The Fitter – Her husband is a gifted brassiere fitter, and she is his assistant. Women are enamored with her husband and would kill to be his wife. Well, they might not have to…
- How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady – A brief story that is a list of commands for what housewives (and women) should and should not do. For example: “Join a book club. Join two. Never put your phone on a restaurant table” (p. 112).
- How to Be a Patron of the Arts – This story traces the development of how a housewife gets to be the benefactress of a trust and thereby becomes a wealthy patron of the arts. The woman does not set out to become a patron of the arts, a title that we usually only associate with old money.
- Dead Doormen – This story is about a housewife who makes friends with the doormen in the apartment where her husband is the apartment building’s co-op board president. The wife lives in her husband’s childhood apartment where her mother-in-law lived and entrusted her to keep clean and never change. This story has magical realism in it.
- Pageant Protection – Here, a woman rescues a child beauty queen from the beauty queen circuit and her criminally overbearing parents. She drives the child to New York to take her to a refuge home for beauty queens. She tells her about her new life.
- Take It From Cats – This story is told from the perspective of cats and what they feel they are allowed to do and forbidden to do.
- My Novel Is Brought To You by the Good People at Tampax – In this story, a writer is sponsered by Tampax (makers of tampons and feminine hygiene products) to write and promote her novel. Initially the funding seemed like a great idea, but as time went on, Tampax and her obligations to promote the novel seemed to enslave the writer.
There you have it. A summary of the short stories in American Housewife by Helen Ellis.
Themes + Symbolism
Although many of the stories depict women of different economic means—many of the stories are about the very rich and upper class, and some of the stories are about women who are struggling financially from the lower class—there are several themes that run throughout the collection.
For example, the reason why an author writes is a topic seen across several stories. Almost always, the author characters are desperate for money and somewhat disinterested. In all cases, the author characters write for the benefit of others, including at the expense of the reality TV consuming public and, in another story, to retain corporate sponsorship from, of all places, Tampax. Many of these characters seem to be under immense pressure to perform as successful writers, not just of one book but of many.
Another theme is the idea of a rulebook. A housewife should or should not do this or that. A housewife should present this face to the world or that place to the world. It sometimes seems like these guidelines are meant in terms of how to succeed as a housewife—especially within society, e.g. to make your husband look good or to fit in with other women—rather than for your own benefit. This is because another theme in American Housewifeis not existing apart from your relation to a husband.
The stories are also satirical. There is a biting commentary on themes such as celebrity, fame, wealth, the success of a writer and the lengths she will go to maintain her reputation, Southern conventions, an the pageant circuit. The author uses the satire to make a point about feminism and the challenges of American housewives, their challenges, limitations, and opportunities.
Language + Style
Some of the stories are told in first person singular, others in first person plural (“We”), and others in third person omniscient. The tone is often somewhat detached, but other times it is over the top. There is a sense of dark humor running throughout the novel. This is achieved through techniques like hyperbole and the absurd. This is supported by the theme of macabre humor, something Ellis has used before in her novel Eating the Cheshire Cat. Even when there is an absurd or grim situation, character, or event, the stories often have a biting sense of humor and an acerbic wit.
The short story collection shows a remarkable sense of range. No two stories are alike in their tone, language, style even though they are united by themes. This helps make the point that each American housewife is unique. Yes, it’s true that many share themes, but you can never judge each American housewife as the same. This reflects the quilt-like tapestry of the American landscape, with many wives united with common experiences of being a housewife. We all live in this country, but we are not the same. This is likely one of the reasons why Helen Ellis decided to include such a diversity of experience in her short story collection about the American housewife.
Something to Talk about: Questions for Debate
Here are a few questions to debate. Book clubs might like these discussion questions and prompts for Helen Ellis’ American Housewife, but you can also just take them as general thought-provoking prompts.
Warning: This section contains spoilers.
- How are the stories in American Housewife similar? How are they different?
- What do these women share in common?
- Why do you think this collection takes place in America? What aspects of the stories were unique to the American experience? If you’re not from America, what do housewifes experience in your own country?
- How is this a feminist work?
- How are these women often defined by their relation to their husband? Do any of them retain a distinct identity outside of their marriage?
- What did you make of the magical realism? Did you enjoy stories like “Dead Doorman”?
- How is this a satirical work?
- Did you find the stories funny? Disturbing? Sad? All of those?
- What was your favorite story and why? What was your least favorite story and why?
- Who would you recommend this book to and why?
Articles, Reviews, and Resources of Note
- Vogue: “Helen Ellis Is Giving Housewives a Very Good Name” (January 8, 2016)
- The New York Times: “The Real Housewife of New York (Who Happens to Be a Poker Star)” (December 22, 2015)
- The Rumpus: “The Rumpus Interview with Helen Ellis” (January 27, 2016)
- NPR: “Frisky, Subversive ‘American Housewife’ Practices Shock and Awwww” (January 14, 2016)
- Kirkus Reviews: “‘American Housewife’: Book Review” (September 23, 2015)
Books to Read If You Liked American Housewife
Here are a few book recommendations if you liked American Housewife by Helen Ellis.