Book Review: Malevolent Envy, Relapse, and Lemon Tarts

Reading and Writing

(because life can sometimes be untidy)

Originally published in American Book Review, December/January 2011

Books reviewed:  In Envy Country by Joan FrankUniversity of Notre Dame Press, 2010 and Feeding Strays by Stefanie Freele, Lost Horse Press, 2009.

The short story collections In Envy Country by Joan Frank and Feeding Strays by Stefanie Freele tackle the universal subjects of domesticity such as marriage, babies, husbands, wives, meals, and work. Dirty diapers and disillusioned homemakers still exist, however housewifery clichés do not. Freele and Frank explore the complexities of human emotion and action with humor, nuance, and intellectual acuity using slightly unconventional narrative constructs. While Frank employs a voyeuristic tack, Freele re-imagines the emotional states of ordinary people with quiet gestures in tiny universes. In both collections we meet the broken-hearted, the jealous, the attention-starved, the murderous, the obsessed, the static. The characters are complex and layered, as are their stories and the methods used to tell them. They are imperfect. They are human. They are us.

Without being alarming Joan Frank’s stories alarm us. Frank escorts her readers on an expedition across the IED-stricken terrain of envy. Her characters are Madame Defarge-esque, chronicling the steps and missteps of others with no less bloodlust than the French Revolutionary herself. What’s clever is that the storytelling is both vitriolic and detached, wonderfully demonstrating the tension of concealed yet seething jealousies. To wit: Merin, from “A Note on the Type,” is a receptionist where her job is “simply letting people in and out of Gerald’s building.” Merin accepts her fate as Gerald’s clerical dilettante simply because he “plucked” her from the “daily floodtide of the lost and lonely—a tide still visible out the office windows….” Enter Rochelle, Gerald’s fledging hire. Merin details Rochelle as would a stalwart spy: “Her eyes were Betty Boop’s: huge and black. Eyes eager to persuade you of their natural sympathy without revealing the least trace of a thinking agency behind them. . . . Rochelle’s behavior made the same warrant of empty vesselhood as did her eyes and even her voice, a piping sing-song.”

Eventually, Gerald provides Rochelle with services such daycare, a housekeeper, and an accountant (things not provided to Merin). Merin considers, “What did that leave Rochelle to do? It left her free. Free to arrange things . . . Bikini waxes, psychic readings, makeovers, Scuba lessons. Spanish lessons. Acting lessons. Singing lessons. Yoga. Home and garden shows. Car shows. Rebirthing sessions. Deep tissue massage,” while rhetorically asking herself, “For myself? . . . My little place was a handy block from the main streetcar line. I thought of it as a second-floor shoebox, with holes cut in the lid.” These small oblique explosions unmask Merin’s feigned objectivity for what it really is—malevolent envy—and her narrative neutrality is diluted by the precise rhetoric used to construct it.

Lena, in the title story, is a radio broadcaster, and visits the home of Karen Ryerson, a TV anchor and local celebrity. Lena tells herself that Ryerson’s “Turkish rugs over the polished hardwood floor. Two deep sofas; two puffy armchairs piled with extra cushions all in rich creams and autumn golds” are “distastefully shrill.” But the three page detailed description of such a home is possibly an inventory of all that Lena wants but does not have. But does she want the riches that come with celebrity success, or does she want the celebrity? One night Lena and her husband Phil are eating dinner at the Ryerson’s when the Ryerson’s step outside to finish an argument they began inside.

Lena was enchanted.

Phil! Come look! . . .

They’re fighting, breathed Lena without taking her gaze from the window. She said it the way a small girl might have said, a mermaid.

Yeah? Lemme see. Why’s that so nice?

Because they never fight, said Lena softly, moving over for him on the couch. They’re always perfect.

It appears that what Lena really wants is the undoing of Karen Ryerson. This oscillation between desire and jealousy raises the question, are envy and aspiration intrinsic to one another?

In Frank’s stories, we watch others watching others, and judge alongside them, becoming complicit voyeurs. In doing so, we ultimately observe ourselves;

by mirroring our own voyeuristic dispositions, Frank shows us the inclination of humanity to experience covert pleasure in the downfall of others. As Jeff’s nurse in the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window said, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”

Like Frank, Freele takes on domesticity, but when life hands her characters lemons, they make lemon tarts—and lots of them. “In the Kitchen She Wakes” pivots on the emotional struggle of a woman dealing with the recent separation from her husband, in part by baking excessive amounts of lemon tarts. The story is a concise five paragraphs, but Freele expresses an entire universe of feelings despite its elfin size.

“What the hell did you bake this time?”

“Lemon Tarts.”

“No pen caps sprinkled on top?”

“They’re perfect.”

She hears him adjusting himself on the pillow. “I love your lemon tarts,    damn it.”

She can smell inside his glove compartment, cigars and tape. She can taste the shoulder of his wool sweater. “Will you just stay on the phone while I get back in bed?”

He breathes.

When stories are thus compressed, even Freele’s titles are vital. “From Bootleg to Blackout—the History of Relapse in America,” one of the shortest stories in the collection (there are a total of fifty-one), begins with what almost every alcoholic utters at one point: “I will never drink again.” We know the ending because of the title, but Freele conveys in a few broad strokes and some large gaps in the text (signifying perhaps blackouts), the ugliness between “I’ll never drink again” and complete relapse. The story crisply portrays alcoholism, while simultaneously examining the idiom “I will never drink again.” As readers, we are compelled to rethink all hackneyed sayings as well as alcoholism itself.

Stefanie Freele’s work sometimes prompts the reader to forgo concepts of time, logic, size, and reality; in the collection we encounter a carnivorous sinkhole, a levitating baby, and mysteriously appearing appliances. In “Fish Fishy” a woman hides in a fish tank from her husband while he mutters things like “Don’t drink from the aquarium please,” and “You can’t fit in there; this is only a twenty gallon tank.” The absurdity is apparent, until the husband says, “Come on, hon, come on. I apologized didn’t I?” His wife then “drifts “underneath the fish, one leg wrapped around a fin, the other drifting lazily in the decorative rock”. The woman is suspended in the tank and in the argument she had with her husband, floating physically and mentally underwater in a liquid limbo, with the muffled sound of her own conflicting thoughts. Suddenly, the story doesn’t seem so peculiar.

Again, in “A Glowing Pregnant Woman,” Freele examines normalcy and overused adages. Freele dissects the oft-repeated phrase said to pregnant women; ‘you are glowing’ and challenges clichés, of both language and motherhood. “The bed lay unmade as she’d slunk back in it three times today. The dishes of half-tried beans and untouched tuna attracted ants in the kitchen. The floor hadn’t been cleaned in a week. . . .She belched and supported her aching head with her arm. The fatigue behind her eyes—impossible as all she seemed to do was sleep—urged her back to the pillow.”  Soon, the “father of the blossoming fetus” comes home from work and his pregnant wife undresses. Her husband sees her naked breast and turned on, undresses himself.  “Her pre-pregnancy brain acknowledged his muscles and flat stomach, but still, despite every intention, she scrambled for the toilet and heaved white cottage cheese into the bowl . . . .” Freele’s rendition of the otherwise formulaic expression, ‘You are glowing’ shows that pregnancy isn’t necessarily fulsome, and the phrase itself becomes a parody, rendered meaningless by revealing what lay beneath it.

Freele and Frank convey, in fully formed ecosystems, the sublime intricacies of daily life. The women who form the nucleus of the activity are faulted and palpable, and their stories bear the fraught anticipation when your back is to the wave of an incoming tide; and like a rogue wave, the stories catch you off guard but plunge downward with a meaningful thump. Frank and Freele’s stories explore what hides under details, events, and clichés and they administer doses of domesticity that are germane and realistic with no satisfying resolve, because life itself is untidy. As Frank’s narrator in “Savoir Faire, Savoir Vivre” notes, “It seemed that the very beautiful owned a secret…knowing what to do, how to live. And there in that knowledge, I thought, the anointed few dwelt forever: untouchable, divine.” And human beings are simply not divine.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Malevolent Envy, Relapse, and Lemon Tarts

  1. Love “In Frank’s stories, we watch others watching others, and judge alongside them, becoming complicit voyeurs. In doing so, we ultimately observe ourselves.”

    Great review! Now I must read them both. Thanks, Kerri.


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