Use Me: Fiction

Schappell, Elissa

Published by Harper Perennial, 2001
ISBN 10: 0060959606 / ISBN 13: 9780060959609
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The exquisitely artful fiction debut of Vanity Fair columnist Elissa Schappell is a novel told in ten stories that resonate with the most profound experiences in the life of a young woman -- friendship and rivalry, the love for a man, the birth of a child, and the death of a father.

Review: Elissa Schappell's first novel is so brilliant it practically gives you a suntan. Actually, it's really 10 linked stories that imply a novel, like Melissa Banks's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, only more literary. (Banks was a clever ad copywriter; Schappell is a veteran of Vanity Fair, The Paris Review, and Tin House.) Use Me tells the life story of a daddy's girl named Evelyn, from her teenage trip to France with her parents and kid sister, through her wild youth and her dad's long battle with cancer, right up to her metamorphosis into a mother of a 2-year-old son who adores vintage punk rock and is slow to give up nursing.

Schappell has a gift for alert first-person narrative, sardonic humor, nuanced sex scenes, child characters as lifelike as (and less sentimental than) Salinger's, and tense conversations that quiver like crossed fencing foils. The book is rife with piercing insights and illuminating turns of phrase. Peering into a loved one's urn, the orally oriented Evie observes that "the bits of burned white bone look like miniature marshmallows in pale cocoa." Her stressed-out mom "looks as breakable as a dime-store comb." A 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl awaiting her third abortion notices the clinic's "bus-station furniture designed to cause discomfort," the "disco effect" of a flickering fluorescent tube overhead, and inside the light, the "dead flies, all on their backs, legs up and crossed."

The schoolgirl is Evie's best friend, Mary Beth, who narrates Schappell's second-best story, "Novice Bitch," which concerns Mary Beth's post-abortion bonding experience with her mom at a traumatizing dog show. It's poignant and painful--Schappell's favorite emotional cocktail. Mary Beth also comes alive in "The Garden of Eden," which evokes the girls' boho idyll in Amsterdam. But for most of the book, she is sketchy, and little exists beyond the struggles of Evie, her doting and imperiled father, and her lovingly troublesome mother. Evie's husband, sister, and the odd lover are fine as far as they go, which isn't far. There's supposed to be an ongoing subtext about Mary Beth's rivalry for Evie's dad's affections--Mary Beth's father is emotionally AWOL with increasingly younger wives--but Schappell doesn't pull it off. She's better at contrasting the girls' erotic strategies: Mary Beth goes for it, while "Evie thinks it perfectly acceptable to get completely naked with a man and then say, 'Oh, let's just kiss.'"

Two things in Use Me stick with you: the deadly accuracy of the family grief scenes and the enchanted account of Evie's (and Mary Beth's) adolescence. Despite a few flaws, this is an electrifying debut. Elissa Schappell is the genuine article. --Tim Appelo

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Title: Use Me: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Good

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