A patient in a ward of anorexics envies “the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.”
A psychology major finds that her job at a halfway house is replacing her idealism with frustration and disgust.
A nineteen-year-old becomes sexually and emotionally addicted to a rock drummer who, in response, scorns her “sheer lack of pride.”
These are just a few of the situations explored in Paula Bomer’s new story collection, Inside Madeleine, which shines a light into the most uncomfortable corners of the young female characters’ lives, under circumstances when these women are most vulnerable, uncertain, and prone to making mistakes. The stories are raw and sometimes cringe-inducing. But it’s likely that for any woman who has reached the point of looking back on her teens and twenties, aspects of these tales will feel unsettlingly familiar, or spark the occasional “but for the grace of god” reaction.
Central to many of the stories is the female body, which, depending on the character or situation, is a source of pleasure or disgust, of pride or humiliation. Nowhere is the body more significant than in the title story/novella “Inside Madeleine,” which follows the ever-evolving appetites of the eponymous main character—for food, for sex, for personal empowerment, for a satisfactory if not exactly happy marriage.
At the start of the story Madeleine’s insatiable hunger leads to her obesity, for which she is mercilessly teased, until she takes power over the situation—again through bodily appetites. Specifically, by having sex with multiple boys in the local high school, she carves out a new identity for herself and turns humiliation into pride: “She was a slut, a sex specialist, a high school whore. She wore the tightest jeans and the brightest make-up. She never smiled and no one scared her.”
The size of her vagina also becomes a source of power and pride for Madeleine, who would “look at certain boys, boys who once seemed intimidating and powerful and she’d smile at them knowingly, thinking, I could put you inside of me, I could eat you up.”
Eventually, Madeleine forms a more lasting relationship with a boy named Mark, who “broke her shell and what was inside was so pink and so vulnerable it scared him at first. Then he liked it. Then he loved it.” Mark seems genuinely to be taken with Madeleine, and to want something beyond just sex. While at first this appears to be a happy and promising development, something about it throws Madeleine and her sense of self off course. The direction the story takes from here opens up some larger questions for readers, among them: How does marriage or any other lasting romantic relationship influence our self-identity for good or ill? Can it change us to our very core? To what extent is a person’s diminishing sexual passion for a partner a natural evolution of things or an early sign of doom?
Aside from “Inside Madeleine,” two especially memorable stories in the collection are “Reading to the Blind Girl” and “Cleveland Circle House,” both of which explore—at least in part—the moral ambiguity that can surround even ostensibly unselfish acts.
In “Reading to the Blind Girl,” the main character, Maggie, agrees to read to a sight-impaired fellow student in her anthropology course, not because she really wants to help the student but because she wants to impress her professor. As you might expect, the professor’s admiration for this volunteerism is fleeting, but Maggie’s experience with the blind student, Caroline, is not. Caroline is difficult, demanding, and needy, and eventually Maggie’s good intentions aren’t enough to sustain the relationship.
“Cleveland Circle House” explores a somewhat similar predicament. In this story, Mary, an anthropology major, takes a job at a halfway house to “get a job in [her] field” and also to help others. Although Mary has some positive experiences on the job, one of the home’s residents, Carol, reacts strongly against Mary’s attempts to help her and ultimately proves to be Mary’s undoing.
Both stories encourage reflection on the motives for altruism, and on both the drawbacks and advantages of attempting to do good. They also provide a degree of comfort to those who find conflict or frustration in efforts to help others. At one point in “Cleveland Circle House,” Mary realizes that she can’t expect herself to perform miracles on her job: she “began to focus on the practical, … like all the others who worked at Cleveland Circle House. She tried to make sure the clients were all shaved and showered. She wanted their shirts tucked in. She wanted them in clean clothes. She wanted the bad smells to go away. She wanted them to do their chores and brush their teeth. The wild mood swings, the delusions, the overwhelming sadness and rages and fears—what really could be done about those?”
Sometimes, the story suggests, we need to lower our expectations about what we can do for others, if only to preserve our sanity.
“Cleveland Circle House” and most of the other stories in Inside Madeleine feel as if they were written from a young woman’s perspective. In an interview with BookTalk, Paula Bomer says, “Some of [the book] was written a long time ago and I feel like a different person wrote it. A different person did write it, as I am not the same person I was even five years ago, let alone ten. The more recent stories I feel better about, closer to.”
Recently, Bomer says, she’s grown “more sentimental,” but she adds that “even if I’m less obsessed with provoking, or offending certain people, I probably still will in the future. I still have the ability to stare certain things in the face and that’s one of the reasons I write.”
She stares many things in the face in Inside Madeleine, and that’s what makes it such a thought-provoking read.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Anything by Mary Gaitskill
• Coming-of-age stories
• Stories about outsiders