I first read Blueprints for Building Better Girls a year after I graduated college—a year I’d spent somehow navigating how to become an adult. After hearing Elissa Schappell and Molly Ringwald discuss Ringwald’s own novel-in-stories, When It Happens To You, another collection I really enjoyed, I scooted Blueprints up my TBR pile. When I finally started it, I was so immersed in Schappell’s contagious writing and keenly observed characters one day that I missed my subway stop.
Story collections can be difficult to read seamlessly: some feel stop and go, while others effortlessly maintain the structure and sensibility of a book. Building Blueprints for Better Girls is best read in succession, to really appreciate and respect the stories as part of a greater whole. With characters that are brutally honest and even unlikeable, the book deserves full applause for portraying women so raw and genuine you could pluck them from the pages and stick them into your life. Schappell succeeds in giving us multifaceted women through the eyes of their mothers, cousins, or friends. The only thing that makes this a novel-in-stories is the lack of a traditional plot structure—each character grows beautifully and all are complete.
In “The Joy of Cooking,” my favorite story in this collection, a mother tries to reconcile her own need for love while helping her daughter prepare a meal for a gentleman caller. As she explains how to prepare a roast chicken, she recalls her daughter’s obsessive-compulsive behavior and the role numbers played in their family history. We get an inside glance at a mother’s agony over a daughter’s illness, her frustration at her daughter’s self-centeredness, and feel her laughter once she realizes her daughter’s inability to cook. Her daughter’s failures in the kitchen serve as a way to prove her validity and necessity as a mother—to still put food on the table, in a way. Tender, poignant, and even heartwarmingly funny, it showcases Schappell’s sharp eye and understanding of female relationships.
I love this book because I could take these women from the pages and place them into my own life. The stories are timeless, careful observations of female experience and testaments to the power of self-reflection: a mother warning a son of a girl’s allure, a couple trying to navigate their sex life, a girl struggling with eating disorders. It’s a world women live in and one that is often disregarded. There’s a balance between devastating and trivial moments that Schappell captures so well—the moments that might seem trivial to many but are rendered gorgeously. I highly recommend this for fans of Julie Orringer, Laura van den Berg, or Molly Ringwald.
“Blueprints for Building Better Girls was the first short story/essay collection I read for fun and really loved. It goes from the late 1970s to present day, following a cast of archetypal female characters that we see in both books and in life. There’s a good girl, a bad girl, a college girl, an artistic girl, a woman who wants to have a child but cannot, and a mother who was reluctant to become one. All of these women have their own distinct voice, but all manage to be funny, poignant, passionate, and unapologetic. The last line says it all: ‘Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.’ For me and the many friends—both male and female—I’ve recommended it to, it’s a must-read!” —Julianna Haubner (Read our review of Blueprints for Building Better Girls here.)