Literary Wives: There Is No One Way to Be a Woman

American Housewife (2016), a collection of short stories by Helen Ellis, is the Literary Wives bloggers’ pick for this month. It is witty, poignant, hilarious, dark, timely, and accessible.


Please see more of the Literary Wives discussion at the following blogs.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Ariel of One Little Library

Kate at Kate Rae Davis: Reading Culture, Finding God

We read a novel about wives every two months an answer the following question.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of stories in American Housewife. Helen Ellis touches on subjects that are both timeless and timely. She writes about feuding neighbors, covetous women, murder, beauty culture and its consequences, prescriptions for feminine behavior, letting go, book clubs, menstruation, cats, and reality television. All of these topics are tackled through satire and humor, leading to enjoyment but also a critique as a reqder. I laughed and I smiled. But I also thought. I thought more about the deeper meanings behind these issues.

And while the narratives were not coherently about being a wife, I did see several strains of what that could mean, especially in the 21st century.

There is the superficial narrative of wifehood. The story called “The Wainscoting War” is a hilarious exchange of emails between two women, one of whom ends up divorced in the midst of her demands to remake the apartment hallway with wainscoting. Yet beneath the ridiculousness is the message that getting married and moving into a new apartment is really about the aesthetic décor. It isn’t about starting a new life with somebody or worrying about one’s own family. The woman in the piece is fixated on the remodeling and décor, and she seems to lose everything at the expense of her obsession. Similarly, “How to Be a Patron of the Arts,” while focused on a more upper class version of the aesthetic, also explores how a woman might lose her identity to material “things” outside of her original goals and dreams. It recounts the steps taken over the years by a young woman who has published a novel to become “a patron of the arts,” rather than a novelist. She never writes another novel. She is desperate to, but cannot. She gives up this part of herself to live a life that seems glamorous but doesn’t really fulfill what she wanted to do as a younger woman. The refrain at the end of each “step” is “make love to your husband” (p. 127). There is a positive spin to these lines, as the woman in the story obviously loves and appreciates her husband and that respect seems to be mutual. He has supported her “hobbies.” However, in her quest to become a writer, she has lost her way and become a rich wife who buys art, attends events, and worries about how she looks. It is a superficial life and a superficial way to engage in marriage and identity.

We also see a narrative of craziness or paranoia in wives, as if they must keep or protect their husbands at all costs. In “The Fitter,” a story that I must share with my good friend Courtney who is a professional bra fitter, the wife is nervous that each woman who comes over to be fitted for a bra by her husband is attempting to take him from her. As the narrative progresses, we come to understand that she has lost her own breasts to cancer, and while she is the one who helps the women try on the bras after he decides on a size and cut, she knows that if and when she dies, she will be replaced. She must be replaced, and her lack of breasts is an omen of what is to come. Another wife kills the doormen in her ritzy apartment building for her husband. He hasn’t told her to, but when doormen are causing problems and her husband (the president of the homeowner’s in the building) is frustrated, she finds a way to solve the problem by killing them. They are “Dead Doormen” and she is the perfect wife. She married her husband because his mother approved of her willingness to get on the floor and clean some spilled wine immediately, without the help of staff. She is meticulous with the apartment that her mother-in-law once inhabited, and she takes care of her husband. This extends into cleaning up his internpersonal messes in the building without leaving any (blood) spots.

The type of wifehood/womanhood I enjoyed most in this collection of stories was the “codes.” Women and wives have codes, and Ellis decodes them for us. She writes about “Southern Lady Code,” a tongue-in-cheek translation of what it means to be polite while expressing opinions. An example is “She has a big personality” which “means she’s loud as a T. rex” (p. 73). There are several lines of these and they made me laugh. I think we can all understand these codes and see them in our own experiences. The other story similar to this was “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady.” This list tends to be more earnest and maybe more my style. I’m not sure if Ellis meant it to be just as funny as some of her other pieces, but I found some pearls of wisdom within. They seemed to be both prescriptive in ways that I have already critiqued in this post but also commonsensical and meant to describe the typical life of a grown woman, including the things she doesn’t want to do.

“Compliment everyone.”

“If your husband wants a bigger TV, for heaven’s sake let him have it.”

“Replace your tights every winter.”

“Forget thongs.”

“If your white shirt has sweat stains, throw it away.”

“Don’t brag about not going to church.”

“Don’t reprimand people who call you sweetheart. Don’t reprimand people who call you ma’am.”

“Listen to gangsta rap in the privacy of your own headphones.”

You get a taste. I think another critique I would add is that these aren’t necessarily universal, and she may have left out women from various countries, ethnicities, classes, worldviews, etc., but I appreciated the sentiment of this piece. It seemed to say, “Just let go. Live a little.”

There isn’t a coherenet “wife” narrative in these stories, and perhaps that is what makes this collection so good. There is variety. We get a sense that women are different and that there may not be one right way to be a wife or to be a woman.

The collection represents my favorite idea from third-wave feminism, that there is no one way to be a woman.