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Powells.com
Saturday, August 16th, 2003


 

Beautiful Girls

by Beth Ann Bauman

A review by Kevin Sampsell

Judging from its title and cover, some people might mistake this for "chick-lit," that genteel, emotionally manipulative ghetto of contemporary literature practiced by women trying to capitalize on the popularity of Ya-Ya Sisterhoods and Bridget Jones diet plans. But Beth Ann Bauman's debut collection of stories has the bite of A. M. Homes and the intelligent tact of Grace Paley. In other words, guys will like Bauman's stories, too, maybe more than some females.

Like the title implies, the stories are about girls, women, wives, and even a couple of baby sitters. The beauty is sometimes only on the surface, sometimes buried inside — under acne, weight problems, bad clothes. But it's there, and Bauman's sympathetic characters always find hope in something, although it's not obvious what that thing is all the time. In "Eden," the main character meets a boyish hippie and has a promising courtship that is hilariously deflated after they get together for a quickie. When she says, "Tell me something nice, Something sexy," he only says, "Do you want to do it or not?" In another metaphor-oozing tale, entitled "Safeway," a woman notices a lost lizard has been living in her bathroom and then goes shopping in a dark grocery store during a power outage, where she attacks a man with yams and pillages the bakery section.

Those stories are enjoyable, but Bauman's strengths really show in adolescent heartbreakers such as the title story, where two friends compete for the Miss Merry Christmas crown, and "True," which tells of the difficult relationship between Janet, an outgoing-but-unattractive girl, and Robin, her quiet-but-pretty friend. The outgoing girl says things like, "It makes me so unhappy, Robin, that you won't try to be a more popular person" and "It's just a crying shame not to live up to your potential." Eventually, Robin goes on a joint and cough syrup date with the school's prettiest boy, who spills some embarrassing dirt on Janet. In the cab of the truck, he plays with her hair before blurting out, "Would it be all right if we didn't do it. Some skank in Sandy Hook gave me something nasty and my pecker's still sore." Ah, the joys of high school!

My favorite story is "The Middle of the Night," in which an eight year-old gets phone calls from someone who calls herself, "the woman your father shtups." A few calls later the woman is teaching the girl how to swear. As her parents' marriage is falling apart, she finds herself wandering to a neighbor's house searching for signs of love.

Beth Ann Bauman takes on characters and stories like someone translating a secret diary. Her voice is cool, her tone is smart, and her storytelling vibrates on the page like the real thing.


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