Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: American Housewife

Dark? Twisted? Hilarious? All of the above apply to American Housewife, a book of slightly screwball, slightly psychopathic (is that a word?) stories from Helen Ellis, published by Doubleday this winter. In this story, “Hello! Welcome to Book Club,” the author slingshots between irreverent and slightly demented, just like real life! American Housewife can be purchased at local booksellers and here and here.


HELLO! WELCOME to Book Club. I’m your hostess. My Book Club name is Mary Beth. We all have Book Club names at Book Club.

Why, dear? Well, really, why not?

The girl who brought you here goes by Delores. The ladies on the red sofa named ReadingHousewife3webthemselves after TV judges. The ladies on the gray sofa named themselves after the Supremes. The ladies at the buffet table chose Bethany, Marjorie and Aretha. The elderly lady dozing off in the egg chair calls herself Jane.

If you decide to join us, you can give yourself a Book Club name. We’ll laminate a bookmark with your new name on it. We’ll hole-punch a tassel. You can keep your bookmark in whatever book you’re reading. It doesn’t have to be a Book Club book. But your Book Club name will be a secret name that only we call you. Trust me, you’ll like it. It feels like a dollar bill in your bra.

That’s right, Jane, I’m talking about bras at Book Club again! Look who’s awake!

Jane’s our grande dame. She’s  ninety years young. She’s what you call a “real New Yorker.” Meaning: she’s loaded. When it comes to Jane’s money, think of a crazy amount of money, lottery money that you’d like as a windfall. Imagine hundred-dollar bills funneling around you like a tornado of financial freedom. Now double that money. Honestly, triple it. Then add a billion.

It sounds better than handing out towels at Flywheel, doesn’t it, dear?

Yes, I bet it does.

Author Helen Ellis. / Photo by Michael Lionstar.

Author Helen Ellis. / Photo by Michael Lionstar.

I met Jane at a library lecture by Stephen King. Can you believe this sweet-looking  lady who has Chanel suits like some girls have days-of-the-week underpants loves horror novels? She sure does. And that means, from time to time, Book Club loves them too. Personally, I think her love of blood and guts and things that go mwah-ha-ha in the night has to do with her want to invest time and money into things more horrible than what’s happened to her in real life. Jane’s survived two husbands (one had a stroke, and one’s mistress shot him dead in a sex swing) and three children (car accident, ski accident, and one “fell” off the roof of her house).

My dear, please don’t concern yourself, Jane’s fine. They all died years ago. And here’s what nobody tells you: losing a child isn’t the end of the world. Life goes on—and more often than not, goes on quite nicely. Just look at Jane with her feet up on my coffee table. Have you ever seen a woman look more relaxed?

Delores, would you refill Jane’s  Scotch and soda, please and thank you!

See there: look at Delores scurry away from the cheese plate. At Book Club, Jane’s  waited on hand and foot because Jane is Book Club’s patron of the arts. Jane buys everyone’s Book Club book in hardback, and tickets for us to attend literary events. If you join Book Club, Jane will take on your Book Club expenses too. All you have to do is pick your preferred theater seating.

The ladies on the red sofa like to sit center orchestra for the acoustics. The ladies on the gray sofa migrate to mezzanines so they can whisper. The ladies at the buffet table are claustrophobic, so they ride an aisle like a bobsled. Delores never stops texting, so she sits at the back. It takes a certain kind of woman to sit in the front. Jane and I are that kind of woman: a front-row woman.

A front-row woman is a participant. She never breaks eye contact with the speaker. She laughs when he says something funny, and she makes a funny face when he describes something gross. That day in the front row of Stephen King, Jane and I had so many facial tics the librarians must have thought that strokes were contagious.

How many strokes have you had, Jane?

That many! My God, it’s going to take a bolt of lightning to take you out.

Two bolts and a frying pan to the back of the head? Oh, Jane, you kill me.

She still can’t smile right.

I know it’s not your fault, Bethany! I didn’t say it was your fault!

Bethany is the woman at the buffet table without a plate, to the right of the Caesar salad, rearranging my napkins. She’s Jane’s neurologist. She joined Book Club because Jane invited her to join. She’s forty-something like the rest of us—except for Delores, who’s just out of college—and should have known better than to choose a Book Club name so close to mine. Bethany, Mary Beth. Honestly, the nerve. But tolerating such indiscretions makes me a good hostess.

A good hostess is gracious and doesn’t make a big deal about things like a guest showing up in the same Tory Burch tunic. But a same-tunic disaster is only going to happen once in a blue moon, especially now that I will call you a week before Book Club to make note of your outfit. Book Club names are forever.

Yes, I know you can hear me, Bethany! Would you like to take my husband’s last name as well? Just kidding!

Bethany works sixteen-hour days and is on call all the time and thus has never married. She wants a baby and for whatever reason wants to personally give birth to that baby, and she refuses to have one-night stands or steal hospital sperm samples, so her biological clock is deafening.

Not like yours, dear. At your age, your fertility is like a pocket watch swaddled in cotton, drawn up in a velvet pouch and tucked inside a Pringles can.

But Bethany’s! Sometimes I walk past the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and am frightened a bomb is about to go off. I imagine my upper torso landing in a gyro cart and the contents of my purse laid out for all to see. Then, I realize it’s not anxiety hounding me; it’s Bethany’s biological clock. It ticks so loud, I’m amazed Mount Sinai isn’t evacuated on a daily basis.

Oh, Bethany, don’t make that face! You know it’s true! Bethany likes Book Club to read romances and I am talking straight-to-mass-market-paperback Harlequin romance romances. She likes her heroines overpowered. These days, we’d call what Bethany likes Book Club to read “rape.” But in Bethany’s bodice-rippers, throwing twelve layers of underskirts up over a heroine’s face and plowing her like a cotton field is known as the main character getting her “just deserts.” Honestly, it’s like rape is no worse than having a banana cream pie shoved in your face. At first you’re startled, probably hurt, but then you get a taste of your assaulter’s meringue and realize you want to eat it every damned day.

Book Club is potluck. The ladies on the red sofa don’t eat curry. The ladies on the gray sofa don’t eat shellfish. I hate shredded coconut. Jane’s diabetic, but will eat any- thing she darned well pleases.

Won’t you, Jane?

Yes ma’am, open-heart surgery, your foot!

Then there’s Bethany, who is lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, vegan, and has irritable bowel syndrome, which is all code for anorexic. She’s a garnish girl. So, throw a radish rose on the edge of whatever you bring and she’ll feast on that. Honestly, watch her tonight. She’ll suck that celery stick like a Whistle Pop.

I am always in charge of the menu. So I’ll call you before our next meeting and help you decide what to bring. I have a chart. So, for example, next to my name this  month  it  says: Tory Burch hedgehog tunic and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

No, it’s not a spreadsheet. It’s something more akin to our mothers’ PTA phone trees. You’re too young to remember phone trees.

Oh,  you’ve heard  of  them?  Well, aren’t  you an elephant-never-forgets.

Not elephant as in fat, dear—I’ll bet you’ve never been on a diet. You can probably have as many bacon-wrapped water chestnuts as you want and never gain weight. What I meant was elephant as being good at remembering. Come to think of it, dear, along with a lack of fat cells, were you blessed with a lack of Alzheimer’s in your fam- ily history?

You  were! How nice. And how old are you exactly, twenty-seven?

Twenty-six. Even better. Not like Delores over there with her arm elbow deep in the onion dip. She’s twenty-two and would guess a phone tree is something Matthew Barney glued together for MOMA .

Oh hush, Delores, you know you don’t know what a phone tree is! You don’t know the landline number to this apartment. Don’t you dare scroll, Delores. Use your mem-or-ree.  It’s in your head, where you keep your will to live.

Honestly, I swear, I let that girl into Book Club as a favor to her dear departed mother—who along with me was a founding member of Book Club—and I regret it every month. Delores always nominates books that are the first in a trilogy.

Delores’s Book Club choices are YA . YA  stands for young adult. Young adult is meant for teenagers the way Seventeen is meant for twelve-year-olds, meaning Delores is too old for it, but she and her Smith sisters cannot get enough. YA is about angst. Will I get that boy to like me? Will I lose the weight? Will I turn into a vampire if he just gives me a hickey? I’m an orphan! I’m a mind reader! I’m biracial! I’m gay! When I get out of high school, I’ll move to New York City, where I’ll find others like me, and then I’ll be happy and I will have it all: a career, a family, good teeth, and takeout Chinese.

Delores has a twisted uterus, is unemployed, and lives in my guest room. She has a fashion blog, which means she posts Instagrams on her Tumblr page of what she wears every day. She used to have a book blog, but gave it up because joining Book Club shuts that sort of public opinionating down.

But you can talk about your feelings here, isn’t that right, Delores?

Yes, you have so very many feelings.

What Delores frets over on a regular basis, dear, is that having “it all” is harder than she thought it would be. At every Book Club, the rest of us old marrieds try to save Delores years of aggravation by explaining to her that she cannot have it all. It all is overrated.

Am I right, ladies?

Nodding, nodding, nodding. It’s like we’re listening to rap!

Except for Bethany, over there.  She refuses to be swayed. Bethany’s an overachiever and doesn’t understand why she can’t rope a man into  marrying and impregnating her.

Because men aren’t bulls and the Upper East Side is not a rodeo, Bethany!

Marriage wasn’t the best choice for you, was it, dear? You’re divorced, am I correct?

Yes, and your ex-husband left you with a mountain of debt because his idea of having it all was maxing out your joint credit cards on Internet poker. I’m sure everyone’s already said to you: Thank God you don’t have children. Well, there’s a reason for that. Children cost money and a great deal of your attention. Every night, I tell Delores before she turns in for bed that she should thank her lucky stars for her twisted uterus. It’s one less choice she has to make.

Well, it is, Delores! Not everyone’s meant to experience childbirth.

Except for you, my dear. You look positively born for it. You’ll bounce back from your divorce. And you know what helps?

That’s right! Book Club.

Oh Delores, buck up. Grab a tissue from Jane’s sweater sleeve. And I implore you, take Marjorie up on her offer of that paying job at Talbots.

Marjorie is the lady with a thermometer in her mouth. You thought it was a swizzle stick, dear?

Honestly, so did I years ago when I brought my catalog returns into the Seventy-Second Street Talbots. Marjorie is the manager and was working the register.

Just look at her, she is the epitome of taste: so much plaid and cashmere; and only one piece of jewelry in addition to her wedding set. She has a stunning brooch collection. It rivals Madeleine Albright’s. She’s wearing my favorite brooch today: a ceramic bunny with tiny onyx eyes.

That’s right, dear, we’re all wearing that brooch. You’re very observant. What an excellent quality to have in your gene pool.

And guess what: as a member of Book Club, you’ll get Marjorie’s 40 percent employee discount. That goes for sale items too. Can you believe it?

I know!

Lucky for us, pleats are back. Lucky for Marjorie, her health benefits are stellar. Talbots has paid for Marjorie and her husband to have in vitro six times. They have zero children. But there are pickling jars in their pantry that we don’t discuss.

I’m not discussing them, Marjorie!

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bank- ruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.

You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?

Yes, that worthless cheating drunk of an ex-husband of yours left you feeling lower than dirt. But, let me assure you, you are a treasure. And Book Club is going to dig you out!

Men. Famous men are the worst. Did you know Frank Langella had an affair with Dinah Shore? He seduced her by sending her Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust, and then she invited him to her house, where they lay in front of her fireplace and listened to that album over and over.

That means, Delores, that every time they wanted to listen to the record again, one of them had to get up off the floor and walk over to the record player and pick up the needle—or flip the record and then pick up the needle—and place it ever so gently onto the spinning LP.

It’s old-school birth control? Oh, Delores, you should tweet that. Not now, for heaven’s sake!

If we were at Jane’s, she’d put Delores’s iPhone in her blender. It’s the horror reader in her. Jane loves to provoke a blood-curdling scream.

Book Club rotates apartments and house rules apply. So, that means no cell phones at Jane’s and no gum chewing here. There’s no red wine at Bethany’s. At Marjorie’s, don’t pretend to hunt for an extra box of Cheese Nips so you can search out her jars. The ladies on the red sofa make you take off your shoes. The ladies on the gray sofa make you keep your shoes on. Delores lives with me, so it’s in her best interest that you do what I say.

Honestly, for Delores to remain a member of Book Club, dear, it’s imperative that you become a member.

And you want to stay in Book Club, don’t you, Delores? Yes, Delores knows: as long as you take care of Book Club, Book Club takes care of you.

When Delores found herself in a transitional period, like the one you’re in now, dear, she was eighteen, orphaned and penniless because her dead mother hadn’t worked for a generous company like Talbots. So, I took her in. And because Delores’s mother was a member of Book Club, Book Club sent Delores to Smith. We visit Jane at Mount Sinai when she has her strokes. We set Bethany up on blind dates. We ignore Marjorie’s hormonal mood swings. The ladies on the red sofa babysit for Aretha. As a matter of fact, so do the ladies on the gray sofa because Aretha can’t find paid professionals willing to cope with all of her kids.

Aretha’s the glassy-eyed woman scooping Bethany’s store-bought potato salad into her hand. She came to Book Club through Marjorie, who makes her sales targets every quarter because Aretha—to escape her kids—spends an inordinate amount of time shopping at Talbots.

Aretha’s fertility specialist hit it out of the park. Twins: two sets, two years apart.

Aretha’s  fertility specialist also happens to be her husband. He’s got the highest insemination success rate in the country, but Marjorie won’t go near him. Neither will the ladies on the red sofa. The ladies on the gray sofa will resort to using him only if their acupuncture and herbal immersion tanks fail. At the hospital, Bethany says Aretha’s husband’s nickname is Dr. Uh-Oh. He’ll get you pregnant, but far too often messes up the details.

For example: Aretha’s ten-year-olds have her blue eyes and their father’s curly hair, but one is a screamer and the other has to wear a football helmet 24/7 because in order to communicate he has to shake his head like a bottle of Snapple. If you look directly at either one of them, they’ll charge you like lions on the Serengeti. If you look directly at Aretha’s eight-year-olds, they too will take it as an act of aggression, but plot your come-uppance for when you least expect it. Once, they slipped crushed Ritalin into my Pinot. They’re lurkers. Always mushrooming up amid living room furniture like clammy ottomans. At Aretha’s, Book Club resembles a bunch of actresses playing blind, affixing our lines of sight on distant spots and groping for crudité. But it’s so hard not to look at her eight-year-olds, because Dr. Uh- Oh’s slapdash juggling of vials made them unmistakably Hispanic.

As a courtesy, Bethany diagnosed Aretha’s eight-year-olds as borderline psychotic. Jane calls them “a handful.” Two handfuls? Oh Aretha, how you manage to keep your sense of humor I do not know!

Oh, yes I do, dear. Dr. Uh-Oh keeps Aretha highly medicated. You know the saying: happy wife, happy life? Dr. Uh-Oh’s mantra is: you asked for it, muddle through. Like the majority of his patients, Aretha gave birth in her forties. She defied God’s will, she shouldn’t complain.

Aretha likes Book Club to read Southern Gothics because in them children like hers fall easily by the wayside. In Southern Gothics, there is no difference between a slow reader and a serial killer. There are no spectrums, learning or otherwise. If a boy “ain’t right,” he’s institutionalized. Or some sense is slapped into him. Or he’s confined to a room or a shed or a silo. Or he’s allowed to wander down to the swamp to poke a gator with a stick. In Southern Gothics, disease weeds out the weak. One bout of dysentery, and it’s poo-poo to you!

You must try one of my bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, dear.

Delores, bring us the platter of bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, please and thank you!

Dip it in the spicy sauce, dear. The secret ingredient is mayonnaise.

In addition to being an amazing cook, I read everything. And I have the time to do so because I don’t have children. I’m fortunate enough to have found a husband who agrees with me that not having children means that the two of us can have nothing but fun. And, to me, fun is Book Club.

Honestly, there is nothing I will not do to be the very best hostess.

If you agree to join Book Club, Jane will let you live in one of her empty rooms, perhaps the one next to the terrarium, and she will pay off every cent of your debt. Under Bethany’s watchful eye, Dr. Uh-Oh will perform your first insemination,  for which Jane will pay you handsomely. And I mean, George Clooney handsomely.

You’ll  surrogate Marjorie’s  baby first because she’s suffered the most losses. Then Bethany’s, because by that point she’ll be ready to embrace the fact that having it all can be just a couple of things and one of those things doesn’t have to be birthed the old-fashioned way. The ladies on the red sofa will draw straws to decide who uses you next. The ladies on the gray sofa will play rock-paper-scissors. And then—only if you are physically able, my dear—Aretha would appreciate  a do-over.

I will be in charge of blackmailing her husband.

Oh, don’t look so surprised, dear. Win, lose, or jars, we’ll never reject you like that ex-husband of yours.

Delores knows this from firsthand experience. Her mother swore Delores was as fertile as a Duggar, so we took her into our fold with great expectations, but we all know how that turned out. A twisted uterus can’t catch.

You, dear, I have a feeling, will be better than gift bags. So what do you say? I have an extra Talbots bunny brooch that would love to curl up on your shoulder. I’ve got my laminating machine and hole-punch  ready to tassel your bookmark. Have you thought of a Book Club name? Do try and stay away from mine, Mary Beth. Don’t pick Mary Alice or Elizabeth. May I make a suggestion?

With that crooked smile, you look like a Hadley.

—Helen Ellis

From the book American Housewife by Helen Ellis. Copyright © 2016 by Helen Ellis. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

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