In a compilation of writer’s stories, revelations of the times when they were “bad”, I expected to find ribald tales of wild women finally baring all to their fans. A bit of a misnomer, the stories are a mix, some wicked and fraught with expletives, others nostalgic tours down memory lane, and still others poignant. The beauty of the project is that the pasts of these successful women writers are as complicated as those of us who read them, as filled with poor decisions and triumphant moments, sexual peccadilloes and embarrassing moments.
Katherine Weber relates an event that is etched in her memory, never expecting so many years ago that tragedy would change the world as we know it. When the World Trade Center was still under construction, Katherine and a male friend climbed a heady ninety-nine flights to the top of the building, the night wind buffeting them on the highest floor they could reach. An amazing, bonding experience with her friend, their young lives were still ahead, foolish plans and expectations as yet altered by reality.
In “Lying”, Ann Hood remembers how easily lies could spill from her lips - silly lies, never those of any particular importance. In her story, Hood speaks of a makeover at Bendel’s Department Store. Staring at the newly remade image in the mirror, the flushed cheeks and bright lips, how could she admit the truth? She invents an identity on the spot, one more glamorous than reality and more fitting to the face now reflected. How can she admit to the suburban life, the six o’clock train home from the city to Rhode Island?
Susan Straight is irresistible to me (“Reckless”), a favorite author for years. I love this story because Straight writes about a part of California that is very familiar to me, not far from where I grew up. Years ago, when she raced over the back roads with her brother, they were surrounded by acres of brush, the state still fragrant with blooming orange groves and open spaces. Fast cars, rock and roll, and her brother beside her, Straight’s young life is defined by this heady freedom, pedal to the metal, music blaring. Such wildness is a comfort when loss has also left its fingerprint.
So far, I have enjoyed the stories but am still in search of really bad behavior. Perhaps Erica Jong has some titillating words in “My Dirty Secret.” Unfortunately, Erica has grown weary of her reputation for “flying”, disavowing the fraudulent excesses necessary to capture the attention of the literary world. Jong’s bad girl persona is simply “my self-created monster.”
Going for broke, I look up Elizabeth Benedict’s “The Thrill of a Well-Placed F***,” which is, more or less, an essay on the joy of using those forbidden words but not necessarily a habit that should be passed along. There are a few gems - Daphne Merkin’s intriguing discourse on male anatomy - but I struggle with a temptation to snicker, even after all these years.
Frankly, I’m disappointed. Though the collection is entertaining and filled with interesting stories, I didn’t find the in-your-face essays the title promised; perhaps time and bifocals are the great levelers. If this is the case, how will our daughters ever believe that we engaged in the spontaneity and questionable judgment of youth, that we too thought we could change the world?