Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women
by Mary Rechner
Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
I know it's Christmas, and many of you are full up on eggnog and good cheer, but allow me to offer you one more reason to celebrate: Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, a collection of smart, subtle, finely tuned stories from Portland author Mary Rechner. These nine stories explore the pitfalls of modern femininity and domesticity, and are told in a fluid, straightforward style with a good dose of black humor.
Rechner explores dark themes that will feel familiar to many readers, women especially: domestic ennui, erosion of sexuality, and the slipping away of self (especially the artist self) that occurs in small yet insistent increments as we tend our homes and families and use our "me" time to run errands instead of create art. Most of Rechner's characters are not-yet-successful artists who dread the loss of their creative practice but struggle to prioritize it. Their internal conflicts play out on the stage of day-to-day banality, cropping up in the midst of hanging wallpaper or tutoring a child. In "Teeth," a routine dental exam morphs into an existential crisis for Darla, who is a mother of two, part-time bookkeeper, and wannabe painter. The cost of dental care reminds her of her family's financial woes (their growing debt a "wild, unsavory fungus"), but she knows that if she were to work full-time on top of parenting, "the painting would go away, would evaporate silently like water in a dish." The clear implication is that, if her art simply disappeared, it would mean nothing to the world -- but would mean the world to her.
In many of these stories, the protagonist's true self is something left behind, something that existed in her past but got lost somewhere. In "Pattern," Silvia sews a dress to wear for her wedding anniversary, even though she hasn't sewn since she took Home Economics 20 years earlier in high school. But she is on the cusp of a change -- "This year the triplets finally started full-day kindergarten. John's vasectomy was long healed. Time to figure out what next." -- and it seems as if sewing this dress is an attempt to tap into the self-confidence she once felt as a teenager, naively certain of her glamorous future. The women in these stories live circumscribed lives, hemmed in by the constraints of family and finances, and small objects -- a hand-sewn garment, a pair of retro sneakers, a glass of pinot noir -- become links to a past where there exists what she feels is a more free or more hopeful version of herself.
The stories in Nine Simple Patterns are subtle, and I mean that in the best way possible. At first, I wanted higher drama and was mildly bored by what I sensed was a lack of action. But, on further reflection, Rechner's nuance seems exactly right. It reflects the fact that discontent and loss of self are seeping, quietly nefarious forces, and they can be cloaked in a guise of domestic success. The events that steer these women away from themselves are the events that are usually seen as markers of her personal success: a husband, a house, children. There are no moments of trauma here, and no bad guys. And in some ways, the low-key normalcy of these situations is what makes them so disturbing. The more I think about these stories, the more I appreciate their quiet brilliance.