In her debut collection of short stories, “The Wrong Heaven,” Amy Bonnaffons writes about troubled, weary women and girls of every age.
There’s the uncomprehending 6-year-old who’s been parked at her Aunt Rhonda’s house to await the birth of a little sister. Aunt Rhonda crochets compulsively. Not just cozies for the extra toilet paper rolls, “but also for the phone and the phone book and the dog and my uncle’s guns and both of their toothbrushes.”
Unsure how long a birth takes, a child’s expectation becomes suspicion becomes certainty that she has been abandoned: She will be left here, encased in a cozy that Rhonda crochets just for her.
At the other end of the age spectrum, there is the unease and phraseological lie of “routine” medical tests for two 65-year-old women who have been friends since college. Each is now adjusting to the loneliness of new widowhood. “New moments kept arriving like empty boxes on her doorstep. Each day, a fresh nothing.”
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At every age in between, women unsuccessfully fend off free-floating anxiety with volunteer work, a dog or a lunch hour spent as the lone customer at “Joyful SongTime” karaoke.
But Bonnaffons often adds an imaginative twist. A professional doll maker’s projects comes to life, and she prefers their company to that of her banjo-playing husband. An ill woman is visited by a “hunky” angel.
Cheryl, a second-grade teacher about to lose faith, buys electric plastic lawn ornaments from Tony’s Catholic Bonanza. The statues were manufactured at the “only factory located partially inside the Vatican City” and, when plugged in, they berate her. Cheryl pours herself a second gin and tonic after work, and they speak:
“‘I saw what you did,’ said Jesus. ‘I saw how strong you made that drink.’
“‘You are loved,’ said Mary. But she sounded a little strained.”
In the story “Horse,” a woman who “had always been an awkward thing, stalled and half wild, willing to try anything but unable to commit, so suspicious of restraints that the suspicion itself became the biggest restraint of all,” signs up for injections that gradually transform her into a horse; she’ll live on a ranch of other former human women. Is this a form of suicide, giving up? Or is she one of the “female animals who gathered up all the uncertainties of their existence into one single, massive risk.”
“The Wrong Heaven,” taps into a dark and funny unrest seen — most famously — in the early works of Lorrie Moore. It’s a raw look at how women handle — or don’t — “curdled potential” and self-inflicted pressure of day-to-day life. Amy Bonnaffons is a new author you’ll want to read and want to watch.
Holly Silva is a St. Louis editor.