I don’t want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please – I won’t jump – I’m not a suicide patient. I just don’t eat.
My neighbors don’t eat either. Eye socket girls. Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale. Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times. Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames. We don’t like the pounds. We look voraciously at one another. We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.
You may think that I don’t know I’m emaciated. I know every curve and angle of my rib cage. I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest. I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face. This girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself. I know about these things. I’m aware of the effects of my disease. (“Eye Socket Girls,” p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)
Paula Bomer’s third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women’s issues, particularly body image, that I have read. The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them. These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters’ lives.
The opening story, “Eye Socket Girls,” sets the tone for the tales that follow. Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment. The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards. As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:
That’s why people fight us. No one likes to see a young girl win. We’re supposed to be nice, well-behaved things. Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods. I don’t get my period anymore. I haven’t bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)
This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, “Breasts,” the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her “assets” ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous. This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.
Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read. It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants. A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them. As word of her “talents” spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman. It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read. Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine’s tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection. It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.
Bomer’s prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down. The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed. While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella “Inside Madeleine” alone would make this collection one worth reading. Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I’ll revisit several times in the years to come.