Elissa Schappell, “a diva of the encapsulating phrase, capable of conveying a Pandora’s box of feeling in a single line” (The New York Times Book Review) delivers eight provocative, darkly funny linked stories that map America’s shifting cultural landscape from the late 1970s to the present day.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls delves into the lives of an eclectic cast of archetypal female characters—from the high school slut to the good girl, the struggling artist to the college party girl, the wife who yearns for a child to the reluctant mother—mapping America’s shifting cultural landscape from the late 1970s to the present day. Its interconnected stories explore the commonly shared but rarely spoken of experiences that build girls into women and women into wives and mothers. In revealing all their vulnerabilities and twisting our preconceived notions of who they are, Elissa Schappell alters how we think about the nature of female identity and how it evolves.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide forBlueprints for Building Better Girlsincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In eight darkly funny linked stories, Elissa Schappell delves into the lives of an eclectic cast of archetypal female characters—from the high school slut to the good girl; the struggling artist to the college party girl; the wife who yearns for a child to the reluctant mother. Their struggles illuminate the common, but rarely discussed experiences, that build girls into women and women into wives and mothers.
In “Monsters of the Deep,” teenage Heather craves intimacy despite her bad reputation at school; years later in “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,” she must reconcile her memories of youthful misadventure with her current role as the mother of a teenager who is falling in love for the first time. In “The Joy of Cooking,” a harried mother continues to nurture her adult daughter, Emily, a recovering anorexic; in “Elephant,” we find Emily’s sister, Paige, confiding her ambivalence about motherhood to her new best friend, Charlotte. In “Are You Comfortable?” we meet a twenty-one-year-old Charlotte cracking under the burden of a traumatic secret, which also sends her college friend Bender, a troubled party girl, nearly to the brink in “Out of the Blue and into the Black.”
These women weave in and out of each other’s lives, connected by blood, friendship, or necessity. As girlfriends, wives, new mothers, and empty nesters, they continually buck our expectations of how “better girls” should act.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In “Aren’t You Dead Yet,” Beth reads a 1963 etiquette book called Blueprints for Building Better Girls: “It was hilarious how clueless these women, teetering in heels, on the cusp of sexual revolution, were.” (p. 165) In what ways are the girls and women in Schappell’s book also clueless? How are they, too, teetering on the cusp of sexual revolution? What did you first think of when you read or heard this title? How does this title fit Schappell’s book?
2. Consider how Heather and Ross of “Monsters of the Deep” fit particular stereotypes. How do they try to break out of their school reputations? How do they conform to these stereotypes? In “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once,” Heather tells her son that she “was a god girl with a bad reputation.” (p. 247) Does this description change your impression of teenage Heather? Why or why not?
3. Discuss Kate and Douglas’s marriage in “A Dog Story.” How do the losses they share—the miscarriage and the death of their dog—bring them closer together? How do these tragedies drive them further apart?
4. In “Elephant,” Charlotte wonders about Kate, the head of human resources at her old job: “What did a woman who didn’t want children want? Or, what did she want more than children? It was creepy.” (p. 112) Why does Charlotte find Kate “creepy,” and what doesn’t she realize about Kate’s desires?
5. Charlotte reminds her ailing grandfather about adventurous car rides they used to take together. “We’d be going down a hill, and you’d suddenly take your hands off the wheel and say, ‘Somebody steer, somebody steer, we’re out of control!’” (p. 79) How does the metaphor of reckless driving apply to Charlotte and to her grandfather? How is Charlotte verging on a wreck? How is her grandfather, too, increasingly out of control?
6. Discuss how Charlotte and Paige, two mothers who frequent the same Brooklyn playground, slowly become friends. How do they test and impress each other? How does the friend-making process differ for adult women, as opposed to the teens and college students in Schappell’s other stories? Did you recognize any of their rituals as your own?
7. Discuss how the women of Blueprints for Building Better Girls juggle career, romance, and family. Which characters seem to strike the best balance? Which women have the hardest time negotiating these responsibilities?
8. Charlotte’s date rape can be considered the central trauma of the book. List which characters are affected by Charlotte’s ordeal. Why does this tragedy radiate outward into other girls’ lives, even years later?
9. The narrator in “The Joy of Cooking” thinks, “No one saw how much the mother hurt. No one knew, or cared, what she’d lost.” (p. 151) Which of the stories in Blueprints for Building Better Girls focus on daughters’ pain, and which consider mothers’ losses? Which characters are the most difficult daughters, and which have the hardest time dealing with motherhood? What is it like to see Heather, Charlotte, and Paige at different points in their lives—as daughters and as mothers? Did any of these stories make you think of your own relationships with parents or children?
10. Discuss the narrator’s telephone conversation with her daughter Emily in “The Joy of Cooking.” How do this mother and daughter depend on each other? The story closes, “I knew it the way I knew I’d always be hungry. Like Emily, only different.” (p. 160) What is each of these women “hungry” for?
11. In “Aren’t You Dead Yet,” when Elizabeth writes her play Food Fight, she realizes, “I’d never written anything like that, nothing expressly female. Nothing that felt true like that. I mean, nobody cared about that stuff.” (pp. 172-173) How would you define an “expressly female” subject? Why does Elizabeth assume that nobody cares about female subjects, and how is she proven wrong? Do you think Blueprints for Building Better Girls is “expressively female?” Why or why not?
12. Bender says in “Out of the Blue and into the Black:” “You don’t know what that’s like. To be special like that. To have all those people know you, to have you in common.” (p. 208) How many characters in Blueprints for Building Better Girls have Bender in common? Why does Bender think that makes her special, and in what ways might she be wrong?
13. If “Nostalgia is a narcotic,” (p. 187) which of Schappell’s characters are most under its influence? Who seems the most stuck in the past, and who is able to move on?
14. In The New York Times Book Review, Jennifer B. McDonald calls Elissa Schappell “a diva of the encapsulating phrase, capable of conveying a Pandora’s box of feeling in a single line.” Read aloud a line from Blueprints for Building Better Girls that conveys a “Pandora’s Box of feeling.” Why does this particular passage speak to you? What feelings does it convey?
15. In the last line of the book, Heather tells her son Sam, “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.” (p. 288) What does Heather want to teach her son about girls? What has Sam learned from the story Heather tells him about “Jane?” In the end, was she “just a girl” when Jay committed suicide, or is she right to blame herself? Explain your answer.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Get inspired by Heather’s body drawings, and treat your book club members to temporary tattoos! Pick up a package of temporary tattoos at your local party store, and let your guests decorate themselves during your book club meeting.
2. Toast your book club with ice-cold mint juleps, the drink Charlotte mixes for her grandfather. Find the recipe here: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/mint-juleps/
3. Kate and Douglas adopt their dog, Thelonius, from animal shelter volunteers in “A Dog Story.” Visit http://www.petfinder.com/shelters.html to find an animal shelter in your area, and find out how you and your book club can volunteer, donate, or even adopt!
4. The women of Blueprints for Building Better Girls are connected in subtle in intricate ways. How did the members of your book club meet? Try to remember when and how each member joined the group, and make a “blueprint” that maps out how you know each other.
5. Bender and her college friends spend weekends in their nightgowns, even when they leave campus. Turn your book club meeting into a pajama party, and ask members to attend in their coziest sleepwear.
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and cofounder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.