Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of eight short stories about living in a female body. Some of the stories have the feel of dark fairy tales told in a literary style, while others feel more experimental. Many of them have magical or fantastical elements. All of the stories are multi-layered, and the reader puzzles her way through them. Sometimes, a story will seem to be about one thing, then it changes and becomes what you did not expect.
Some of the stories are haunting. In The Husband Stitch, a woman is madly in love with her husband, but he is obsessed with untying the ribbon around her neck, which is the only thing she has ever denied him, explaining the ribbon is hers alone. In Inventory, a woman lives in a world where everyone is dying of a mysterious epidemic. As people head north to Canada in hopes of fleeing the disease, she meets fewer and fewer people, and she creates an inventory of her love affairs in this story of isolation and connection. In Real Women Have Bodies, women are literally fading away and becoming transparent. The narrator is a sales associate in a prom dress boutique who falls in love with another woman just before her girlfriend begins to fade.
Some of the stories focus on the aftermath of trauma. In The Resident, a writer accepts a residency in Devil’s Throat, an isolated and hilly region, which is the same area where she was victim of bullying as a teenage Girl Scout. As she works on her novel, she feels as though she is trapped in her past. In Difficult at Parties, a woman is recovering from a violent assault and trying to recover her sexuality and her relationship with her partner. She looks to porn videos for inspiration, but finds that she can hear the thoughts of the actors.
The most experimental was Especially Heinous, which is written as a summary of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. The catch is that it’s a nightmare version of Law & Order: SVU, where there is no logic. Benson and Stabler have doppelgangers, Henson and Abler, who try to steal their identities. The ghosts of dead girls haunt Benson’s apartment. This was a story that I nearly gave up on, as I initially felt like I was reading the plot notes of an extremely drunk writer. I skimmed at first, pondered skipping ahead to the next story, and at some point, I began finding its weirdness appealing.
The most straightforward story was Eight Bites, which focuses on body image. The narrator is the daughter of a thin and very disciplined woman, but she and her sisters all struggle with their weight in adulthood, and one by one, the sisters all undergo bariatric surgery. It takes the woman most of her life to realize that in her quest for an acceptable body, she has rejected her own body and her own daughter.
While my favorites of the stories were The Husband Stitch, Real Women Have Bodies, and The Resident, my least favorite of the collection was Mothers, which was partly about an abusive relationship and partly about motherhood, but mostly it was confusing. While I found the other stories to be complicated, the type of stories where you find new things each time you read them, I was not confused by them. They challenged me, but were not over my head. I am not sure if this one was over my head, but it confused me.
I recommend this short story collection, but it is not a book for the prudish. While Machado does not always write about bodies in a sexual way (some stories deal with illness or body image), there is a lot of sex in these stories and much of this collection focuses on sexual identity. Fans of literary fiction or those looking to add more LGBT authors to their library will likely enjoy this.
FCC Notice: I purchased a Kindle copy.
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