Review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 16 March 2016.

If the rumours are true, not only do we have another season of The Bachelor and a New Zealand Survivor to look forward to, but soon the Real Housewives franchise will hoist up a gilt-framed mirror in Herne Bay and show the rest of us something terrifying and unfamiliar.

Timely, then, to explore the archetype in the adept hands of a bona-fide society wife. None of this single mother with three children running a business passing as a housewife crap – Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife, is the real deal.

The razor-sharp stories in Ellis’ first collection send up wealthy housewives, the literary world, and reality television. A sinister book club recruits a new member. Neighbours in an upscale apartment block go to war over how to remodel their common hallway. An ex-competitor rescues child beauty queens and re-homes them with barren society wives. In the best and longest story, “Dumpster Diving with the Stars”, a blocked writer competes in a mad reality series with a couple of scientologist A-listers and a frightened Playboy bunny.

Ellis’ housewives are wry, self-aware, and employ their considerable charm to bring the reader onside. In the company of these women, it seems quite reasonable to murder a series of doormen and let their ghosts bring you lunch.

This is probably because they’re all versions of Ellis herself, and in many ways, her own story is just as entertaining.

After her first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, was published in 2000, Ellis spent the next ten years writing three more, first fitting them around her professional life, and later accepting her husband’s support to write full time. None of them were published. Crushed, she gave up, and gradually entered an uneasy embrace with her new status as a full time wife and homemaker. She took care of her husband’s every need. She hosted dinner parties. She became a patron of the arts. She acquired a hobby, albeit an unusual one: competing on the national poker circuit, a neat little lady in a twinset and pearls at home among the men in caps and dark glasses. But people kept asking how she spent her time, so she answered with a twitter handle, @WhatIDoAllDay.

Sample: “Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster… I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy… I weep because I am lucky enough to have a drawer just for glitter.”

The caustic voice was a relief, and with the success of the account, Ellis began to riff on the on the theme with a few longer stories. Several of these were picked off the slush pile by various literary journals, and lo, a collection was born. Now at 45, after a decade of trying to convince herself she wasn’t meant to be a writer, Ellis is topping best-seller lists and earning endorsements from Margaret Atwood.

Knowing this backstory though, you can see it’s been a stretch to build a whole collection out of this material. The opener “What I do all day” is simply a collation of tweets from Ellis’ online alter-ego. “Take it from Cats”, an amusing collection of life advice from our feline overlords (“It’s fine to take a nap on the laundry”), would be more at home as a meme to share on Facebook. These aren’t really stories, they’re flash fiction, and here they’re just filler. Even between the better stories, there’s little narrative variation; the housewives and their misdeeds begin to blur into each other.

In an engaging interview on her sister’s parenting podcast, Ellis (who doesn’t have children) questions the idea that women should ever try to “have it all.” It was only after giving up writing, accepting her husband’s financial support, and letting go of the question of children that she finally felt comfortable in her own skin and found her creative voice again. The successful author as surrendered wife – this is fascinating, uncomfortable territory. But it’s not fully explored in the pages of American Housewife.

Her best stories are dark, debauched, and extremely enjoyable. I tore through them in a single sitting, but was left wanting. Not more of the same, but more commentary, more conclusions. Yes, the world she describes is mad and scary and great fodder for satire – and so what?