Sara Lippmann’s debut collection Doll Palace, out this September from Dock Street Press, is a sparse but intimate portrait of lives unmoored. Set upon by failed pregnancies, lost innocence, a child’s terminal illness, and a pill-popping babysitter, Doll Palace explores characters who are seeking conviction beyond the circumstances of their everyday lives.
In “Starter Home” a woman’s new apartment becomes overrun with expensive building construction, and rather than run from the problem she becomes one with it. In “Babydollz” two strippers ponder love over a waxing table. “Jew” artfully contemplates a sick baby, and in “Queen of Hearts” a father feels sympathy for his flawed yet potentially dangerous babysitter.
Over the course of twenty-three stories readers become familiar with Lippmann’s style, which at times feels nearly experimental for how quiet her conclusions fall on the page. Her stories oscillate between points in time and she never uses dialogue tags, which contributes to her fragmented style. And while her writing is occasionally distant, her work is driven by an emotional energy that derives its power from an unscripted way of examining life. She is both unpredictable and exciting, and succeeds in building believable characters through a perspective that feels unique.
In “All This Happiness” Lippmann writes: “Women his age seem to either exaggerate their teenage selves or else to let themselves go, as if their bodies were balloons on strings. Meredith, one could say, has forgotten about herself over the last year, for good reason. But Steffi, my God Steffi—”. In “Reunion” one passage reads: “The last time I saw Ryan he was double teaming me with some guy…” And then: “I have always performed to expectation.” Lippmann’s stories are at their best when they examine women. The majority of her stories have female narrators, but even those told from a male perspective portray and expose the duplicity women face in finding a place for their sexuality, their bodies—even their desire for children—in a world that makes these choices difficult.
In “Girl” Lippmann writes about a woman in an abortion clinic: “They are not like her and yet she is one of them.” The characters in Doll Palace often grapple with how a situation affects their identity, worrying that the result will identify them completely. And while this is certainly true for her female characters, this concern is reflected in the male characters as well. In “All This Happiness,” a man, who normally works as nursing-home clown agrees to perform for a child’s birthday. He shares a complicated relationship with the child’s mother, described here: “Steffi is elsewhere. Drinking and smiling and refilling her cup, drinking and smiling and filling the cups of others, and Max doesn’t know which is worse: to remember without remorse or to have no memory.” Then, later: “How could he have thought to walk into a life and try to make sense of it? Of all the truths we tell ourselves.” It is here Lippmann voices the thesis for her collection. “Of all the truths we tell ourselves,” reflects the search for an accurate reflection of who we are in others. Among the many relationships in Doll Palace, the collection examines what it means to be true to yourself, and how to recognize this truth even when it is ugly or difficult to appreciate. Doll Palace is a remarkable set of stories about people trying to make sense of their lives. It excels in examining women, but the men in this collection are just as memorable.
Publisher: Dock Street Press
Pub date: September, 2014
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer