Named after a fictional girls’ etiquette handbook, Elissa Schappell’s 2011 short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, offers a multi-perspectival, intergenerational portrait of American womanhood. Told with impressive care and patience, the eight stories of the collection inspire a familiar uncertainty at odds with the trite didactic moral lessons the title promises.
The protagonists of the stories are involved in an intricate web of acquaintance. Characters mentioned in passing in one story appear later as main subjects, all the while coping with the shattered illusion of safety that so often pushes people toward adulthood before their time. The collection is bookended with the stories of Heather, the “school slut” whom we see first as a teenager and later as a concerned mother. The six stories in between jump forward and backward in time, examining the characters’ set expecations for their own lives versus the realities they face.
What I loved most about this network of stories was how it highlighted the role secondary experiences play in one’s development of self. Heather from the first story is the unwilling subject of everyone’s gossip. The rumors that are the entertainment of others play a very real role in Heather’s self-conception and ultimately in her development as an adult. The same is true for Charlotte, whose rape sets off an introspective chain reaction that reaches as far as her distant acqaintances. The dark, unresolving stories of Blueprints are particularly effective in their specific, detailed elaboration on the emotional lives of average, everyday people. All readers can find fragments of their own life stories in the eight stories of Blueprints, which in turn makes the hazy outcomes of each character’s life that much more urgent and insightful.
Novel lovers who normally shy away from short story collections should reconsider here, not only for Blueprints’ artful character building but also for the wonderful craftsmanship of its structure and pacing. This is indeed a collection that deserves multiple readings and careful narrative attention. Having read Blueprints I am eager to read Schappell’s debut book, 2001’s Use Me, which instead uses ten short stories to focus on the life of one main character. Fans of Blueprints, Use Me, and Schappell in general can catch the author at Powell’s City of Books Sunday, July 22nd at 7:30 pm.