- - Friday, September 30, 2011

By Elissa Schappell
Simon & Schuster, $24 304 pages

What are little girls made of? In Elissa Schappell’s latest short-story collection as novel, “Blueprints For Building Better Girls,” they are not made of all that’s nice. Little and not-so-little, these girls are anorexics, rape victims, betrayed and self-betraying wives and girlfriends, battered party girls, femme fatales wounded by their own sexual power and frustrated, unfulfilled mothers.

Ms. Schappell’s heroines are not templates for a new uber-woman. They are a troubled and troubling collection of middle- and upper-middle-class women whose helplessness, loneliness, self-abuse and self-hatred are made more compelling and harder to bear by Ms. Schappell’s cool, matter-of-fact narration. Few writers are capable of this degree of unflinching frankness, and with this book Ms. Schappell joins the ranks of Mary McCarthy and, more recently, Rebecca Curtis: These women share a capacity for terrifying honesty, black humor and a sometimes brutal determination to dissect and lay bare the interior, social and sexual lives of American women.

“You don’t even know me,” Heather, the first of the book’s heroines, tells a boy she’s been sleeping with secretly for months when he tells her he loves her, and this line is the book’s promise and its motto: You don’t know Heather and sister heroines (they barely know themselves), but you will when Ms. Schappell’s through with you. And you’ll know them in a way that might recall Jonathan Swift’s famous line: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse.”

Take “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” a story that parents of college-age girls would do better to avoid. It begins: “I woke up in my own bed. Alone. Fully dressed, including underwear. Thank you very much.” And that (waking alone, in her own bed, and fully clothed) is where the good news ends for this heroine, Belinda, known to her college classmates as Bender. She claims this nickname is a tribute to her flexibility (she once jumped out a third-story dorm window and landed unhurt, “like a cat”), but it’s pretty clear from the first paragraph on that Belinda’s college life has been one long bender, punctuated by bouts of unconsciousness.

Bender’s not stupid: She’s a reader (she has “Frankenstein” and “The Bell Jar” by her bed) and a keen observer. But she can’t say no; she wants to please and entertain, even if it’s at her own expense. (It usually is). “Now, when I show up at a party, people really are happy. It’s not a party without Bender. … You don’t know what that’s like. To be special like that.”

But this “specialness” comes at a price: Bender’s active, half-remembered sex life is not about her own pleasure and desire: She offers herself, limp and doll-like, to boys who don’t acknowledge her in public, and she cannot bring herself to respond to the overtures of the one boy who offers - and for whom she feels - genuine affection.

Simmering beneath Bender’s anxiety about one blackout night is anxiety about her friend Charlotte (the heroine of two other chapters in “Blueprints”). Charlotte, a virgin from an old-fashioned Southern family, has been raped at a frat party and has become a shut-in; no one in their circle of friends knows how to help her. Bender wishes, with a perverse heroism, “that what happened to Charlotte, happened to me because I could take it. I’m brave.”

Ms. Schappell’s heroines are brave and even her most harrowing vignettes show them surviving, more or less, their selections from the menu of life’s miseries, if only by recasting their tragedies as comedies. In “A Dog Story,” a young married couple living in Manhattan find themselves in the midst of a spreading plague of babies, and they want in:

“Unstoppable, they slopped under the door and through the mail slot. Stork- and cabbage-leaf-embossed birth announcements fat with glossy photos of newborns. … With their looks of disgust, alarm and defiant boredom, the photos seemed like Wanted posters. Clearly, these potato-faced outlaws were itching for trouble, plotting to drive their parents to ruin and an early grave. We wanted one.”

Their baby, however, has other plans. At the couple’s second-trimester checkup, the tech can’t find the heartbeat. “My husband asked her to keep looking,” the heroine reports, “as if the baby were playing Marco Polo and had swum behind a kidney.”

There are weaknesses in this work, but the walloping honesty of “Blueprints” and its intricate and subtle architecture, reminiscent of Ms. McCarthy’s “novel in parts” (“The Company She Keeps”), overshadow the occasionally shaky endings and the less-impressive stories that bookend the collection. “Blueprints” is superior fiction, the work of a talented stylist with a cold eye. If there’s any justice in the world, Ms. Schappell and her better girls will one day find a place among fiction’s big boys.

• Emily Colette Wilkinson is a recent winner of the Virginia Quarterly’s Young Reviewers Contest. She lives in Williamsburg, Va.

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