Women in Bed: Stories
By Jessica Keener
The Story Plant, 2013
142 pages, $11.95
Jessica Keener debuted in 2012 with her novel Night Swim, which was acclaimed by the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), as well as book critics from The New York Times and Boston Globe. She returned in late 2013 with Women in Bed, a collection of nine stories that explore the lives of women who are struggling with a range of personal demons, relationship issues, and societal and cultural demands. The title refers to their various ways in which they retreat or suffer from these conflicts and challenges, both of which are often done “in bed.”
Keener’s stories contain more shadow than light, and she is not interested in writing about the lives of one-dimensional, “likable” characters. Her protagonists are complex in the way of actual human beings; they are women who are at one time or another isolated, confused, difficult, or uncommunicative. While these stories are easy to read, they don’t offer easy answers to the characters’ complicated problems, and several of the endings leave the reader to infer or predict the eventual closure (if any). As in life, some experiences are not resolved with all the loose ends tied up neatly.
In the opening story, “Secrets,” a waitress attempts to befriend a woman who comes in every day, writes in a notebook, and eats the same meal for lunch. But their expectations of each other and their relationship differ, with unsettling results. “Papier Mache” follows Leah, a college student who copes with her grief over a death in the family by going to battle with her art professor, her therapist, and her mother over matters large and small. In “Boarders” another college student is slowly realizing it is time to move on from one relationship, but she moves awkwardly toward the next one. Jennifer’s fraught romantic situation is aggravated by the elderly man from whom she has rented a room, a curmudgeon whose restrictions chafe on her.
In “Woman with Birds in Her Chest,” Cynthia decides to retire early from her job as a social worker at St. Agnes Hospital in order to focus on herself for a change. But that proves more difficult than she expects; she has concentrated on the needs of others, both her clients and her husband, for so long that she is not certain who she is and what she really wants or needs.
“Forgiveness” explores the differing responses of Jennifer and her older sister, Ruth, to the abuse visited upon Ruth by their father, who is outraged by Ruth’s early expressions of her sexual orientation. Years later, Jennifer looks back and wonders how Ruth was able to forgive him and put the pain of her childhood and adolescence behind her to create a new life with her partner in the Florida Keys, while Jennifer has remained bitter and unsettled. When Jennifer finally visits her sister in Florida, Ruth allows her to steer her motorboat. “I pushed the tiller too hard at first, then discovered how minor adjustments of the tiller, an inch left or right, kept us on course. ‘Easy,’ she said. ‘Works best.'”
Keener’s writing is the real strength of this collection. In every story you are pulled in to the character’s life and struggles. She conveys a vivid sense of place and a range of moods with a few well-chosen phrases or sentences. So while the stories are dark and haunting, the writing is sharp and memorable. Keener has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was listed in The Pushcart Prize Anthology as an “Outstanding Writer.” The stories here provide ample evidence of her talent and reason enough to await her next book with interest.