Review: Clothed, Female Figure
Fiction | Stories
5.5” x 8.5” Paperback
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kirstin Allio’s latest book, Clothed, Female Figure, is a gift to readers. The stories presented are charming, laced with dry humor, and teeming with the kind of heartbreak that leaves your throat full of something you cannot explain.
The women in these stories snatch your attention unexpectedly: Rosemary, a twenty-something at her first real job putting her life together without her recently deceased mother. Natasha, the central character of the title story who emigrated from the Soviet Union, once a respected psychologist, now a nanny to children she refuses to let herself love. Elena, a new mother obsessed with being The Mother. Caryn, a desperate housewife trapped in a snowstorm with five children. Taylor, whose best friend went missing their senior year of high school, and she’s felt she’s the one missing ever since. And the list goes on.
The women in these stories share a certain desperation, which is part of what makes them interesting within their slice-of-life settings. Allio shines in eviscerating the ordinary life to show the blood and bones underneath.
My personal favorite comes midway through. “Charm Circle” tells the woes of Sara, the most depressed 18-year-old, angst-filled teenager who ever existed. She travels to Europe, on her parents’ dime, roams aimlessly for 10 months before finding love and then the tragedy she apparently always knew was coming for her. The story is split between two points of view: first, Sara’s version of events, and then her mother’s 20/20 hindsight.
In Sara, Allio creates a character you cannot help coming back to. She’s first presented as an impossible-to-like, let alone love, protagonist. Unless, of course, you’re her mother:
Sara went to Europe because she thought no one else had ever. She never read a single book; she thought her feelings against me meant she had invented psychology.
I always wondered, did she want to be different because she was different?
What I mean is, was she trying to be herself, or was she trying to be different? It would help me to know. I could never ask her.
Unless, of course, you were once a sad young girl yourself.
Another stand out is Heather in “Still Life,” mother of two, married to an academic. Heather is haunted by the ghost of her best friend, Gilda — her best friend who killed herself and left no note for either her family or Heather. Everything she does reminds her of Gilda; everything she does not do reminds of Gilda:
She won’t get the news that people are once again wearying of Facebook (but still posting rows of hearts on Gilda’s wall, I miss yous), that Dan moved to a different state to get away from all the co-mothers. Heather’s grandmother died September 10, 2001, unsuspecting, slipping out with a whole era; Persia was born and named in 1999, light-years before 9/11. What tears Heather apart is that the dead become innocents so quickly.
Heather’s grief, like death, has no end.
Allio’s previous work, Garner, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She has received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award and a PEN/O. Henry Prize. After reading Clothed, Female Figure, it’s easy to see what all the hype is about. Allio’s stories draw you in, make you care, then slightly tear you to pieces — whether for the characters or for yourself is never quite clear.