“You can fill up your life with ideas and still go home lonely.”
(The epigraph is epic.)
Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.
The Pretty, Grown-Together Children: 5/5 stars“There were no secrets. Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing.”
This tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of English conjoined twins in show business. And it was truly and honestly unlike anything I’ve read before in a short story.
I started with one page and then put it down to get something to drink, and the whole time away I couldn’t stop thinking about Daisy and Violet.
I hadn’t heard about the Hilton twins prior to this, but I sure did my research after finishing.
“Violet and I might be broke and we might be strange but we were not ordinary.”
The Siege at Whale Cay: 3.5/5 starsM. B. “Joe” Carstairs, the fastest woman on water.
Former star of a carnival swim show in Florida, Georgie, is going steady (for the time-being) with Joe.
“Her God-fearing parents thought she was teaching swimming lessons on a private island. They didn’t know she’d spent the last three months shacked up with a forty-year-old womanizing heiress who stalked around her own private island wearing a machete across her chest, chasing shrimp cocktails with magnums of champagne every night. A woman who entered into a sham marriage to secure her inheritance, annulling it shortly thereafter. A woman who raced expensive boats, who kept a cache of weapons and maps from the First World War in her own private museum, a cylindrical tower on the east side of the island.”
However, their relationship turns rocky when movie star, Marlene arrives on a yacht with a boatload of beautiful, rich people, actresses and politicians.
The overall story kept my attention, but I don’t usually enjoy reading about rivalry in relationships so that made me lower my rating.
Also, what the hell with Georgie happened towards the end??
“She treaded water, fingers moving against the dark sea, pushing it away to keep herself afloat. There were rocks jutting out from the water, a near miss. There were strange birds nesting in the tall grass, a native woman bleeding on a straw mattress in a hut on the south shore, a stone house strangled by fig trees.”
What? It surely cannot end on that… I need to know what happened.
Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period: 3.5/5 starsTold in four acts, Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period goes through time and back to describe the sisterhood between Norma and Vincent Millay.
It’s a rather short story so not much was expanded, but I liked seeing how they had each other’s back till the end of time.
Also, the writing in this is gorgeous.
“When she breathes in, her sister’s claret-colored hair falls across her face, and she feels deep love tinged with resentment, like the pure ice leaching red dye from the river.”
I love how specific it is.
Romaine Remains: 2.5/5 stars“We are what we can be, not what we ought to be.”
—From Romaine Brooks’s notebooks
We enter Romaine’s later life told entirely from the perspective of her houseboy. Their interactions were always a bit cold and empty, but I never suspected him to behave in such a cruel way.
“I do not care for her, Mario thinks. I do not feel sorry for her. I only want to take some small slice of her life and have it for myself”
I didn’t like the way his characterization was handled—the story made him out to be so vengeful, to claim something that wasn’t rightfully his, and I did not care for how it was taken care of.
“He can feel the new film of self-confidence he has acquired peeling back, revealing the well of self-doubt, the sense he has carried with him his entire life that he has been wronged, that he is owed more. He needs her to see who he really is, who he can become. He hates her and he needs her love, and she is never going to give it.”
Also, that ending was confusing as hell.
Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death: 3.5/5 starsIn this short story Hazel Eaton is lying in a hospital room in Bangor after an accident happened when “her rear brake locked up as she was circling the motordrome at sixty miles per hour. ”
It was only a few pages, but I loved getting to research her past after finishing it.
“Don’t tell my parents,” Hazel slurs, but the nurse is gone. Her parents will see reports of the crash in the papers anyway, and her mother will write her a letter asking, Why? Why must you put yourself in harm’s way every week? Every day?
What they don’t know: nothing has topped the feeling of standing next to the motordrome, smiling into the din of applause. Nothing has topped the way men shake her hand and look her in the eye, what it’s like to be able to call a man chickenshit to his face and get away with it, to mean it, to feel free and dominant and in control of your life.”
Expression Theory: 3/5 starsExpression Theory describes Lucia Joyce’s thought process. But I have to mention that I didn’t understand what I was reading until I googled her. And since the story was really short, it didn’t help to comprehend everything that was happening.
Saving Butterfly McQueen: 4/5 starsWe begin following Elizabeth, a student in med school, when she and her classmates are about to slice cadavers open. And just as she’s about to cut into the body, her thoughts turn to Butterfly McQueen.
Back in the day, Elizabeth went with her youth group trying to convince people to “let the light of the Lord into [their] heart.” And so she thinks back to trying to convince Butterfly McQueen, who was in her eighties, to join the Lord.
But when she actually get to talk to Butterfly McQueen, Elizabeth realises that even she doesn’t believe in what she’s trying to sell.
“Don’t you worry about what’s going to happen when you die?” I said, suddenly genuinely curious.
“I already know what’s going to happen when I pass,” she said. “I’m giving my body to science.”
“This was the first time I’d ever heard of someone not wanting to lie in a grave in their best dress, plastic lilies stuck in the ground next to a granite tombstone. It seemed to me so rational and selfless, one of the greatest gifts you could give: your whole body.”
A truly fascinating take on both religion and science.
Who Killed Dolly Wilde?: 4.5/5 stars
Told from the point of view of a loved one, this story describes Dolly Wilde in her last year.
“For years people who admired Dolly’s wit and entertaining personal letters pleaded with her to write a book, but she never had. She was lazy, but I think she was also stymied by her uncle’s shadow.
“How can I be any good if he has used it all up?” she once said to me.”
I wasn’t expecting to love this story as much as I did. But damn, this was phenomenal. The characters, the loves, the nights horrors. Everything and so much more made this story so incredible.
I also loved that a lot of the women mentioned in this collection were connected one way or another. It made everything feel that more real.
A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch: 2.5/5 stars
“But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us.”
—Ernest Hemingway, on Beryl Markham
Fearless Beryl Markham had been riding racehorses since she was eleven and the recent regal stallion she’d gotten for nothing at auction, mystifies her.
“I want to be alone when I turn the stallion out, she thought, looking for his proud head over the stall door. I want him to know me as his master, his alpha and omega.”
I wasn’t expecting to read about her cruelty towards the horse, but I was definitely left terrified of her character. I seriously cannot read about animal cruelty, it breaks me apart.
The Internees: 4/5 stars
This short story describes the liberation process from the ghetto concentration camps. It was only a couple of pages but managed to encompass the whole world, for me.
“We were human again. We were women.”
Hell-Diving Women: 4.5/5 stars
Ruby lives on the road with America’s first integrated all-girl swing band, gig to gig, and while behind the wheel she starts to think about her friend/ crush, Tiny Davis.
“Ruby is the do-anything girl. It’s not the best job in the world, but it’s a job that keeps her close to Tiny and close to music. ”
Ruby tries not to show it, but she wishes to be part of the sound that the band produces.
“If only I could be part of that flow, part of that sound.”
There was also talk about race, sexuality, white-privilege, and it tackled each issue with the most honest and sincere truth.
“Hey there, black girl!” a man in a blue suit shouts, huge smile on his face. He holds his drink up to toast Tiny, sloshing small, clear drops of gin onto the floor.
“Hey, fella,” Tiny shouts, looking down and gesturing with her trumpet. “It’s not about being black. It’s not about being a girl, though I like girls. It’s about playing your goddamn music. Blowing your goddamn horn.”
Lastly, I want to mention that I absolutely loved getting to research each and every woman featured in this collection and getting to know them a bit better than before. I truly appreciate any book that makes me come out more educated once I finish, and that it did.