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02 March 2017

Helen Ellis: a modern American Housewife

By // Books

Author Helen Ellis has many strings to her bow, novelist, World Tour poker player and (previously anonymous) social commentator on Twitter. Her latest book, American Housewife is based on her successful Twitter account of the same name.

It is a collection of 12 short stories which focus on a range of eccentric characters: two tenants in an apartment block who communicate only in increasingly volatile emails, a struggling writer participating in a reality TV show, an anxious wife who fears a customer may seduce her husband, an expert bra-fitter, a woman who helps child beauty pageant queens escape from pushy parents. Each story casts light and shade on different aspects of female frustration, anger, and sometimes madness. And it’s funny. Margaret Atwood said it’s the book that has made her cackle the most this year. A fitting endorsement from the author of many dark portraits of female psyche in the 1980s.

As a poker player, Ellis has likened writing a novel “the same kind of hubris as walking into a room of 100 poker-playing men and thinking, ‘I’m going to outlast all of you.’” Poker is usually a career picked up by men, but Ellis is a prime example that more women are making it as poker players. And she certainly has outlasted a few men on the circuit – in 2012 she played at the World Poker Tour, made the top three tables and took home about $17k.

So, does Ellis represent an evolution in the classic trope of an American housewife – the woman at home, whose desires and frustrations pulse just below the surface of social respectability? Let’s take the first story in her collection, “What I Do All Day”. This is drawn almost entirely from Ellis’ Twitter feed. She explained in a recent interview to the British Guardian: “Reading two years of that stream I saw how it was the story of a weird, happy Mrs. Dalloway, who doesn’t kill herself at the end. I taught myself a new way to write. I find stories now by paying attention to patterns in what I am tweeting. I was tweeting a lot about book clubs, so I wrote a story about that. I tweet about my cats and so that was a story too.” She adds: “I am an old-school lady. I hate to see young women hunched like crows over their telephones in restaurants. A lot of my tweets are addressed to such young ladies.”

But Ellis’s portrait of femininity in 2017 is far from old school. For instance, in the first story she writes: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster… I weep because I am lucky enough to have a drawer just for glitter. I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy.”

Later, in “Hello! Welcome to Book Club”, Ellis portrays a complicated group of Alpha women who are connected by their enormous wealth… and, we later discover, by their fertility issues. Meanwhile, later stories follow even more identifiable tropes of the “modern” American woman. The narrator in “How to Be a Patron of the Arts”, is a self-doubting writer, who has convinced herself she is a failure. But Ellis isn’t interested in exploring whether or not that is true – instead asking whether the character will ever come to terms with herself and her life.

And it is that which marks Ellis’s work as an evolution in the tradition of feminist writing. She is less concerned with matters of external equality and the position of women in society – and more concerned with the internal issues of self-acceptance, self-worth and self-positioning of “housewives”.

This masterful book reveals more about ourselves than you might bargain for. As a female reader, one moment you’ll be laughing at a character, before suddenly recognizing yourself in her. It’s dark, comic, and all-round excellent.

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