Book Review

Three of the big short-story prize winners in 2019—Once Removed by Collette Sartor (Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction), Driving in Cars with Homeless Men by Kate Wisel (Drue Heinz Literature Prize), and Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher (John Simmons Award for Short Fiction)—are first books by women. Based on some similarities between the books and the characters’ concerns, it’s tempting to draw general conclusions about the state of women in fiction, but the most obvious similarity among these books is that their women—flawed, funny, smart, and brave—won’t stand for your generalizations. They speak only for themselves.

These are women living in a time when anything is possible. You can be a lawyer, a bodybuilder, or a woman who makes as many bad choices as men get to make. But with endless possibilities come endless decisions. These women struggle to figure out what they want and who they are, and they see other women as the best bet to tell them. They compare themselves to others—damaged girls with eating disorders or women who have it all figured out—and discover their ghost identities floating in the distance, the decision they didn’t make.

In the story “Make Yourself at Home” in Happy Like This, Caroline begins impersonating her friend through a random letter exchange with a woman who has her friend’s same odd name. These layers of remove from the main character’s truth somehow lead to the question of what truth really is. Is it in the paths she has taken, or the ones she has ignored? Caroline wonders:

Was there another her out there somehow? Someone braver, someone who’d do better, know better? She couldn’t help but wonder. When she’d jumped off a bank or leapt from a diving board as a child, was there another who felt, at the moment Caroline’s body began its plunge, the sensation of vertigo in her gut? When Caroline scraped her knee or had her hair pulled on the playground as a girl, did the other her, by instinct, scratch at the pink skin on her kneecap or smooth her tidy hair? . . . She pictured herself on an escalator, slowly descending, hand on the railing, eyes straight ahead. And another her on the other side, in ascent. Eyes straight ahead. Going somewhere else—where? At the midpoint the two cross, unknowing.

It’s these other versions of themselves and their relationships with other women that take center stage for the characters in Happy Like This. In many of the stories, men are on the periphery, known mainly through their absences or demands: dead fathers, boyfriends wanting commitments, or husbands who appear weak-willed for marrying such strong women in the first place. One could argue that Wurzbacher is unfair to men in her book, seeing them only as overgrown man-boys without the complexity to handle complicated women; but that’s not an argument I’m interested in making or hearing, and I doubt Wurzbacher is either. It’s the women who are most able to wound each other, because they are the ones expected to understand other women through their bodies, hearts, desires, and damages.

In “Happy Like That,” for instance, Elaine is dealing with the sudden death of her best friend Lillian, contemplating the difference between partners and female friends: “Husbands . . . you can find one anywhere, the world is bursting with them, and once you’ve got one you can learn from a thousand different sources what to do with him and how, though he won’t really get you and you won’t really get him. . . . But she’ll never find another Lillian.” Elaine allows Lillian the same complication she could never assign to just a husband, and in the end, Elaine is forced to accept that she didn’t know her best friend as well as she thought, leaving her adrift in a way a man never could.

If men are on the periphery in Happy Like This, they are more like a malevolent center at the core of women’s lives in Driving in Cars with Homeless Men. Even when they’re not present on the page, you feel them hovering and influencing the way the women behave with their bad-girl slouches and concerns. Many of the girls and women in Driving feel deliberate in their obtuseness, fighting to not know their painful truths and instead hiding behind the fronts they put up.

The stories in Driving range from flash fiction to traditional-length stories, capturing lives lived in snippets. These women are often depressed and self-destructive, thinking only about their pain and not their actions. They like Heineken and Doritos. They disappoint their mothers and call them by their first names. They see problems as personality traits. The stories themselves aren’t chronological and echo back and forth to each other—the boy from childhood who overdosed, morphing into an adult desire for pain; a father’s abusive friend who leads to an abusive husband. The book’s structure links these stories through something more intuitive than chronology, a thread more akin to the way pain and trauma reverberate through lives. As Wisel writes, these women and girls are “pool balls, in [their] triangular lifetime, waiting to get shot out and whirled.”

Like Driving, Once Removed is a collection of interrelated stories, but while Driving focuses on five friends in the gritty world of Boston, coming together and influencing each other as they go, Removed focuses on characters whose lives intersect not merely by geographical and chronological proximity, but in ways they don’t anticipate and with consequences that reverberate through time. One woman’s first husband becomes another woman’s second; a child’s impetuous action results in an injury that touches everyone around him. The centers of many of the stories in Once Removed are not romantic relationships or friendships, but motherhood in all its iterations: through biological, adopted, or step-parented children; through miscarriages and full-term pregnancies, planned and unplanned. The book explores different answers to the question of how much a life changes for a child—or maybe not how much (that’s a given), but in what ways, for better and worse.

What’s impressive about the stories in Once Removed is that they don’t offer easy conclusions—such as “motherhood is a blessing,” although some of the characters might feel that way. Others feel relief at escaping parenthood; still others recognize that the good might not outweigh the bad. As one character notes, “Parenthood—its unpredictability and sacrifices—wasn’t a natural progression but a choice, one that she decided not to make.” In the end she must decide whether she’s willing to take on a disabled child as a stepson, “to choose to lead him through life instead of just herself.” A central discovery for many of the women is what they really feel about motherhood—not whether they feel the right way, a distinction worth noting and celebrating. The children themselves are also complicated and real, present for more than just the facilitation of the women’s stories. In “Elephant Teeth,” a woman realizes about her difficult child that “[i]t didn’t matter what she’d done or whether I longed for her to be easier, happier, less like me. She was mine, no matter what.” These children aren’t sugarcoated, and the women who see them, flaws and all, have to decide what role they will play in their lives. One woman, pregnant with her child while terrible forces are awake in the world, realizes and accepts with some ambivalence that “[s]he can’t be fearless anymore. Her body isn’t only hers. Nothing will ever be solely hers again.” These women are shedding old identities—fierce, pinpoint-focused—as they gain new ones. Sartor recognizes these decisions (consciously made or not) as opportunities for growth, which are very different from sacrifices.

Another similarity among the books is their focus on work. These women and girls hustle and have jobs in addition to their identity crises, motherhood, and romantic entanglements. These jobs range from soul-sucking employment to satisfying careers, and sometimes walk a fine line between something to pay the bills and something not to hate. In Removed, the jobs are important and a satisfying part of the characters’ lives—they’re defense attorneys and camp counselors; they’re singers and landlords—but these careers don’t necessarily define them. By contrast, the jobs in Driving could never be mistaken for careers. “Good Job” in particular is a laundry list of disappointing positions—McDonald’s employee, check casher at Shaw’s, grocery store stocker, pizza maker at Ernesto’s. As Serena says:

I chopped onions and never cried. I did dishes, my sleeves rolled up past my sunburn, my wrists bumping against floating steak knives while the froth disappeared down the drain. Behind the bar I inhaled the buttery sting when I poured Chardonnay. I climbed ladders to hoist the long ends of mops horizontally across a gray movie screen. You can’t imagine the dust, the accumulation of human hair. I was so small against the screen, the size of an ear.

The paychecks are earned dollar by dollar, the characters’ only chance of a way out. Serena’s story ends with her saying, “I often checked my savings, swiping my card outside the vestibule to contemplate the tiny green digits. I filled out my FAFSA and waited for my mom to just sign the last page. I left it on the counter. I kept saving. I waited.”

Happy integrates jobs and hobbies in such a way that they become woven into the stories, jobs that are so grounded in details that they bloom into metaphors about the characters’ drives, desires, and failures. They have jobs as mermaids, lab managers, ER nurses, and grad students. But even as they are working and searching, these women are getting on with their lives, seeming to strive for one extreme or the other: living in and abusing their bodies, disciplining them to amazing feats of physicality through ballet and bodybuilding, or “letting them go” through food, drink, and apathy.

And that’s the great thing about all three of these funny and immersive books. These women are getting on with it all—the children, the relationships, the jobs, the identities. They’re living in their bodies and out in the world. They’re caring about men and not caring about men. They’re having it all, but only as much as they want, while they figure out what that means.

In Wurzbacher’s “In Sickness and Health,” a PhD student lives with a group of girls in a residency hall, blurring the lines between observing and being observed, detachment and immersion. The student writes of her subjects in a way that’s a fitting description of the women in these three books:

Aside from their common lack of a biomedical diagnosis, their closeness in age, and their gender, the girls have few universally shared attributes, representing as they do a variety of diverse geographical regions of origin, socioeconomic statuses, educational backgrounds, ethnicities. They know they’re being studied but don’t know precisely what for; they’ve given their consent.

About the Reviewer

Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes and It's Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories. She is a professor of English at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.