A Time to Read: A Review of For Sale By Owner and The Desires of Letters
Literature was my first love, books my first refuge. In my life before motherhood, I never dreamt that finding time to read would present a challenge. Then I had my son and, with the birth of my daughter a little over two years later, I find myself struggling to find time to sneeze, let alone fall into the pages of a novel. Now, when I do curl up with a book, I want it to count. I want to be transported, transformed, to bask in someone else’s experiences or eloquence, or both.
While reading Kelcey Parker’s For Sale By Owner and Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters I knew my cherished reading time was well invested. These books about family life and motherhood helped me to recognize shared aspects of the domestic experience and gave fresh voice to emotions I was relieved to learn I share with others. Parker and Browne’s collections both seek to convey and encapsulate essential truths about modern motherhood. They speak from that liminal space that women often inhabit, the space between motherhood and personal or professional aspirations, between raising independent, self-reliant kids and fostering our own sense of an independent self.
Parker’s For Sale By Owner is a collection of short stories that center on family life and motherhood. The publisher aptly deems the collection “tales of twisted domesticity,” a phrase that perfectly characterizes the pieces. Many of Parker’s characters are mothers; she engulfs the reader in these women’s daily lives, capturing the strange and fantastic thoughts and behaviors that allow them to cope with the stress and exhaustion that mothers often find inherent to family life.
While Parker’s collection consists almost entirely of tales of domesticity, the reader is never bored or lulled by anything resembling the ordinary. In fact, the stories are utterly distinct, each distinguished from the others not just by specific characters and details, but through the voice, form, and style. The story “Possession” for example, is divided into segments bearing titles like “Laundry,” “Holiday,” and “Toothbrush,” which reflect different aspects of daily life. An excerpt from the section “Groceries” provides a small taste of Parker’s talent:
It’s where she’s alone at last at long last no kids no man no phone Kroger. She is queen. Her subjects crowd every aisle and throw themselves at her feet. Take me with you! To the castle! Cook me! Bake me! Mix me! Cut me! Feed me to your children!
The two-page story “Falling” consists of a single sentence that represents a woman’s thoughts as she falls asleep:
she thinks of how she wishes she could undo the mistakes she made when she was young and freaked out about living in a Ranch House on a street called Valley Wood Road adjacent to Forest Hill Road adjacent again to Brook Farm Road, where every word was a noun except for the ones disguised as adjectives, and about having to do alliterative things like Weeding on Weekends
Parker’s characters include a beleaguered mother who gives up her family for Lent, a woman who handles her dissatisfaction with family life by imagining a highway in her head, and a mother of four who records her most intimate thoughts, including her husband’s suspected infidelity and apprehensions about her most recent pregnancy, for a marketing survey. Each piece of short fiction represents a new lens through which to view domesticity, combining relatable stories and familiar emotions with outlandish and sometimes disquieting twists.
Parker utilizes such twists imaginatively, captivating and comforting the reader and then introducing an unnerving detail or storyline that makes the piece all the more poignant and unforgettable. When a story about a quiet teacher leads to questions about an inappropriate relationship with a student, or the tale of a chance encounter with an old boyfriend morphs into a housewife’s fantasy about what could have been, Parker’s language and poetics allow these disturbances to exist without unsettling the reader. Thus, while the stories are in fact disturbing at times, these disturbances create layers of interest and intrigue. Parker causes the reader to reconsider the things she takes for granted (healthy children, mental well being, family connections) and asks that she appreciate these things a little more, hold them a little closer to her chest.
Throughout For Sale By Owner the language is lush and lovely. Parker plays with words, form, and presentation, serving to both entertain and engross. The story “The Complete Babysitter’s Handbook,” a tale about domestic discord in extremes, begins rather bluntly with a section subtitled “Not Dead.” But Parker is not satisfied by simply compelling her reader’s attention with a promising subtitle. Instead, her vivid language and careful imagery deliver.
Anne did not die. Even if at the moment she is not so sure. Her brain scrabbles about in her sore head like a mouse in the dark. The lid of her left eye lifts, and her brain races toward the light, surveys the scene (fluorescent bulb, dowdy curtain attached to ceiling: no one’s idea of an afterlife), and then retreats behind the exhausted eyelid.
Parker’s collection is at once practical and poetic, somber and funny, abstract and exact. She delivers on the pledge all fiction writers should be required to make: providing the reader with stories that are simultaneously relatable, entertaining, and sharply told.
Where Parker’s stories are straightforward short fiction, Laynie Browne’s collection The Desires of Letters offers a merger of several genres and styles. The book defines itself as poetry/memoir, but truly it is not so easily characterized. Browne embarks on a bold quest to tackle a range of topics and questions related to domestic life, friendships, family history, and the state of the world at large in pieces that read like prose, poetry, letters, and journal entries all in the same breath. She delves into the personal and the political, the private and the global, and, while there are moments when her work feels a bit too mysterious and her meaning a bit too elusive for a reader who might savor tidy packages and recognizable genre, the soulfulness and significance of Browne’s writing are undeniable.
Browne’s work is at its most powerful in her exploration of the personal, particularly the identity crisis that motherhood and domestic life can trigger. Browne’s writing seems to embody this crisis, communicating the writer’s frenzied attempts to reconcile her numerous disparate roles in a manner both artful and relatable. As a reader still adjusting to the motherhood-surrender, still processing the notion that this one facet of my identity may supersede all others, at least for a time, I could not have found Browne’s collection to be more poignant. In some pieces Browne’s domestic functions seem to merge with her political and professional concerns, and these clashing concerns appear on the page much the way I would imagine they appear in her head:
Picking up, cleaning up, clearing the air, twisting the physical body, as well as the floors, and that’s why maybe so many artists have no patience for domesticity, reproduction, even going so far as to despise the acts in others, as if one could prescribe one lifestyle as ‘best’ and all others as idiocy. I won’t complain anymore except to say that our rent is very high for a drug zone and there is hardly any coverage of the bloodbaths witnessed by our innocent babysitter just a few blocks away. Daylight apparently doesn’t discourage business. I almost hate to invite anyone over.
As with the above passage, many of the pieces in Browne’s collection are simultaneously eloquent and disjointed, encapsulating the fragmented sense of self that many of us experience as mothers. These pieces emphasize the divided nature of women’s lives, drawing on the compromises that many of us make in choosing which self — mother, wife, professional, community member — must take priority in a given moment. Early in the collection, Browne’s frustration with these choices is near the surface and the pieces are more invested in the realm of the domestic and personal. The reader is given glimpses of the narrator at home, with her children, trying with limited success to simultaneously write and mother. As the collection progresses, a stronger sense of community comes to the forefront and the messages become more global and political, addressing topics ranging from the writer’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration to her sense of helplessness and frustration with the war in Iraq.
The broad range of material that Browne takes on seems to provide evidence that as a writer and mother she herself is finding her stride and reconciling those roles. Initially her concerns appear to be heavily domestic, but, as the collection develops, so does her ability to see beyond the personal. Even near the end of the collection, however, Browne makes explicit her struggle with her sense of self:
How to do this parental stuff in tune with being a writer, daughter, sibling, granddaughter, citizen, wife (though not to a house), devotee, bhakti, tzadik in training, community weaver, domestic everything, yogi, herbalist, confidante, friend, reverse insular portrait of rain.
Like Parker’s collection, Browne’s writing plays — with form, with style, with voice and presentation. Some of Browne’s pieces are straightforwardly poetic, while others are letters or lists and still others, like this one, seem like stream-of-consciousness recordings:
This time hasn’t been enough with the baby suddenly crying and so what can one do one has to stop and get the child and hold his warm head and kiss that, instead of the page. Replace thought with tending to miss thought, and only years later, when time is plenty to think, one misses the child more than words ever mention. This will be true someday much later, but I must console myself now, missing words, to remember the child I never miss. He is (they are) my constant companions.
Her prose is self-consciously multifaceted, and it is the complexity and variation between and within Browne’s pieces that create texture and dimension. Because of this multidimensionality, the writing contains a sense of freedom and playfulness that underscores the collection even when it is emotive or somber. “Today’s Headlines” intersperses news about a man who has gunned down five co-workers and information about the failure of the American car industry with memories about high school and working at Kentucky Fried Chicken (including a surprisingly eloquent description of the fryers and the coleslaw). Through this play with form and presentation, Browne seems to dismiss predetermined categories, adding a layer of fascination and meaning to The Desires of Letters and creating a unique and memorable frame for her compelling words.
For Sale By Owner and The Desires of Letters both give voice to the domestic experience, articulating the struggles and joys of motherhood and capturing the frequently divided nature of women’s lives and identities. Even the structure of each collection seems geared toward negotiating the motherhood mentality; as if arranged for readers living in that liminal space between motherhood and other responsibilities and ambitions. As a collection of short stories, Parker’s book lends itself to the reader who only has snippets of time between play dates and soccer games or an exhausted half-hour at the end of the day to grab a quick read. Browne’s book provides even briefer literary escapades, even shorter forays into the world of her words. In both cases, the result is that those of us who have traded business suits and drinks with friends for oatmeal-clumped clothes and sippy cups can still find time, however brief, to engage with the beauty of language. These collections will undoubtedly help readers recognize and name the loss of self that many mothers experience and still remind us all to appreciate what motherhood has allowed us to gain in return.