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Lessons in Femininity in “Girls of a Certain Age”

Lessons in Femininity in “Girls of a Certain Age”

It’s hard to capture the line a young woman must walk when trying to make sense of belonging. But Maria Adelmann skillfully handles the insecurity of female youth in her collection of stories, Girls of a Certain Age. Whether young girls or twenty-somethings, her protagonists deal with some kind of trauma that controls their lives more than they’d like.

Adelmann subtly crafts vehicles into that uncertain headspace that girls and women often experience when deciding who is to blame, or where they should be focusing their attention, or what love should look like. The thirteen stories can be unsurprisingly cynical but never lack for elegance.

The collection culminates in “The Wayside,” which follows May, a recent high school graduate working at the house-turned-museum where Nathaniel Hawthorne and other authors once lived. 

“The Wayside” powerfully reveals the conflicting frailty and resilience of femaleness on the cusp of adulthood. While May dreams of something like male attention or love, she doesn’t have a clue what a healthy pursuit would look like. She tries to come to terms with her innocence just as she vows to squash it.

When finally faced with a pushy, horny man in a car, May thinks:

“What was I supposed to do? I thought of the lifetime I’d spent listening to advice from my parents and teachers and friends, from song lyrics and TV shows and movies: go for it. Just say no. Seize the day. Trust your instincts. What was my instinct? I felt like a deer in headlights, trapped in the middle of the road, unwilling to go forward or back.”

May’s building suspicion of the male sex harkens back to the collection’s first story, “Only the Good,” which begins with a breakup.

“The reason I slept with Hugh in the first place was the reason I slept with anyone in the first place: because he had asked me to. I had already imagined the future I came to be sitting in, this breakup in the cold over black coffee and his cigarettes.”

How much of being female is learning to give in or preparing for the worst? Hugh then tells the narrator that she’s just too easy and available. She thinks: “Like a bad habit, or a whore. Could be both.”

In “Middlemen,” a neurotic roommate named Grace seeks constant attention from men and in turn convinces the narrator to join her on a quest to blow the minds of her exes with threesomes, presented to each of them like a gift.

The narrator asks Grace: “Are we ruining feminism? Are we purposefully turning ourselves into objects of the male gaze?”

“Objects?” says Grace. “We are goddamn superheroes.”

Later, the narrator realizes that females may always receive conflicting messages about how to behave or what to value: “Equilibrium is impossible, I think. You’re either bursting at the seams or desolate.”

Other stories provide younger lessons in femininity, including “The Portrait” about a girl who was born almost completely deaf. A moment of rare confidence in public leads to an even further spiral into her young humiliation about her disability, which she is still trying to understand.

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“Elegy” is a story told in reverse about a woman grappling with the deaths of women in her family from breast cancer and having to get a mastectomy at age 29. Arguably the most beautifully and skillfully written piece in the collection, “Elegy” encapsulates the expectations of being female and the unexpected horrors we inherit.

“First Aid,” is a brutally affecting first-person account of the psychology of trauma and self-inflicted harm:

“Here’s a lesson from basic psychology. Let’s say something bad happens to you. You can’t stop the bad thing from happening, because you’re too little, or whatever. You roll up into a ball like a gray stone and let the bad thing happen to you. It’s an ideal solution, because stones feel nothing… But, new problem: How does one become human again after being a stone?”

These stories show that many girls and women, modern and otherwise, share the unintentional habit of waiting. Waiting to grow up, waiting to feel better, waiting for a husband to return from war, waiting for a nice guy to come along, waiting for the abuse to end, waiting for a father to get his act together.

Adelmann exposes the precariousness of modern womanhood, of attempts at defining our sexuality using terms we’re supposed to understand without anyone explaining them to us. (After losing her virginity, seventeen-year-old May thinks: “Did all rites of passage include blood?”)

These stories seem to suggest that sometimes there is no right answer about what we’re supposed to be doing except surviving. There is usually no one coming to save us and especially not a man, as many of Adelmann’s characters quickly realize. Perhaps women must depend on muscle memory alone to keep treading water.

Girls of a Certain Age
By Maria Adelmann
Little, Brown and Company
Published February 16, 2021

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