Sara Lippmann. Dock Street Press, $16 ($4 shipping), paperback (192p) ISBN 9780991065714
Most of the protagonists in Sara Lippmann’s story collection Doll Palace are hot messes. Others are just lost. All are intriguing. Throughout the book, Lippmann explores different voices—teens, kept women, divorcees, strippers, fathers, clowns—but most of the characters are women and most of them make us think about what that means.
Lippmann shows us protagonists at their worst. Most show no ounce of the shame they know they should have—as in the cheating, plastic surgery obsessed Abigail of “The Best of Us,” who is on a yoga retreat and not playing by the rules. Sometimes they are self-obsessed, like Frida in the title story who offers advice to her niece’s babysitter without once listening to what she has to say. Others are humbled by their worst, which is revealed slowly and through backstory, as in “All This Happiness,” the story of a clown named Max who is struggling to father a brain damaged infant.
Lippmann doesn’t seek to redeem these characters as much as show them as fully human. While the reader doesn’t necessarily excuse Max of his past deeds, he is so honest and full that we root for him over the insincere childhood friend who invited him to perform at her son’s birthday party. As for the unapologetic characters, in some ways we can admire their unwillingness to follow the rules set out for them, their unwillingness to be sorry, because the women in their positions are so often asked to be sorry.
Lippmann lets the reader understand more than her protagonists. She paints the world through other characters and plot turns so that we can make our own decisions about character. We root for the Xanax-addicted babysitter in “Queen of Hearts” over the narrator who first slipped one to her, but we also agree with the narrator of “Tomorrowland” who fears her “daughter will meet a nice man.”
These characters also makes the timid characters more tender. Lippmann has a talent for writing teen girls. And what is especially pleasing for me is how virginity is tackled in the book. Some characters have a lot of sex and some characters are not ready for sex, both represented in “Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart.” Girls who have sex and girls who don’t face opposite but similar struggles. Each is working out the world of women more than they are the world of men.
If there is a weakness to Lippmann’s collection, it is probably when she gets into worlds that are more imaginative: a stripper who also wears a giant Elmo costume to cut children’s hair, the target girl for her father’s knife throwing performances. But even when she doesn’t quite suspend my disbelief, the situations are interesting enough to keep me reading. And the book is so rich otherwise. Lippmann’s worlds are beautifully rendered, from the menagerie of strollers on a New York side walk to the teddy bear décor of a boardwalk fudge shop, from the commercial overload of an American-Girl-Doll-esque café to the Russian bar in Brighton Beach where women high kick to every 80s favorite. The stories lead us to perfect endings, often ominous and not quite clear endings that made me re-read the last page. Even the re-read was a pleasure. (September 2014)
Purchase Doll Palace HERE.