“American Housewife” is undoubtedly one of the funniest books I've read for some time. These short stories imitate the parlance of our modern day popular and online life to skewer the shallow values of a consumer-driven superficial culture. Sorrows are drowned with Chanel No. 5. Book clubs are more about potluck dinners and outfits than literature. Little pageant girls enter protection programs to hide them from their fame-driven parents. The satire of these tales is enriched with self-help guide speak which encourages you how to understand the subtext of what a “Southern Lady” says or how to be a “Grown-Ass Lady.” Longer stories push frivolous pastimes to extreme and absurd ends like being forced to be the surrogate for a group of ladies in a book club or neighbours who turn murderous over a decoration dispute of an apartment building’s common area. This bombastic horror exposes the underlying emptiness of trivial middle class standards of behaviour. Just like the self-portrait artist Cindy Sherman who inhabits personas of fictional characters distorted by the society they live in, Helen Ellis’ humorous imitation of women who bow to the values of popular culture serves to send up the shallow attitudes and seductive images we’re bombarded with in every day modern life.
Beneath the playful humour, there is a relatable simmering anger driving these stories. Women feel compelled to “stallion-walk” in their kitchens like Beyoncé. Even though we know we can never be like Beyoncé, we can’t help wishing to be like her and thus making ourselves look ridiculous. These stories are also suffused with a sense of frustration that what is trivial is popularized more than what is thoughtful. For writers specifically, it’s as if there can be little drive to pen anything worthwhile because it will just be chewed up and twisted by the machine of popular culture or ignored by an easily distracted public. It’s remarked “Looks like, unless we're raging drunkards, writers are boring.” In this story a writer who hasn’t published anything for some time is drawn into joining a reality show called “Dumpster Diving with the Stars.” Another story focuses on an author commissioned to write a novel by Tampax. One of the most funny-but-cringeworthy stories ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’ features the transformation of an aspiring writer who gradually dumbs herself down to the point of being a monotonous socialite and wife. When having a conversation at an art exhibit she instructs you to “admit that you published one book. 'It was a novel.' Talk about it in the past tense as if it's a dead child.” This book is awash with satirical humour that anyone can relate to, but particularly to writers like me who once had a novel published and have since failed to successfully get that second book to press.
I’ve been reading a few novels recently that are excellent, but heavy and difficult. So the stories in “American Housewife” made fantastic intelligent, but easy and very funny reads. They also made me intensely self conscious of the ways I might also be like an American housewife with glitter in my desk drawer and spending the morning hunched over my desk in my pajamas.