Henry David Thoreau observed that men often lead lives of quiet desperation, and although he omits women, they often also lead lives of quiet desperation, as is the case for the women under examination in Genevieve Plunkett’s debut story collection, Prepare Her. In this collection, the domestic lives of female protagonists come under scrutiny, mainly from themselves. The collection is set in rural New England, where a slow pace of life allows the characters the time and space to ponder their situations. Plunkett thrives on exploring the interioriority of these characters, and driving these stories is the examination of the self. Throughout the collection, the stresses and hiccups of growing up and aging are a major element of their concerns. Girls become women, women become mothers, wives divorce spouses, and ultimately we see women in all life stages from girlhood until death.
Plunkett hooks readers easily with carefully crafted first lines, drawing readers in with dead bodies, mysteries, and odd images. From there, the stories build momentum slowly, but precisely, spiraling out along tangential subplots. These sideline narratives accrete to form the fuller story, eventually coming together as the stories conclude, often abruptly. Plunkett piles many ingredients into a slow cooker and then lets them boil.
For example, in the story “Gorgon,” the narrative opens with an unexpected image of Richie Ross, “well respected among the older children because he had a pet iguana that would cling to his head when he rode his bicycle.” The narrator, Jenny, is harassed by Richie throughout the story as he acts out on a childhood infatuation he has with her. The narrative meanders into asides, digressing into a whale watching trip, a passing friendship between Jenny and Alicia, the story of Medusa, and Jenny meeting a strange man in the woods. Without warning, the story concludes with Richie ditching Jenny for another girl and the stranger from the woods sleeping in the shed behind Jenny’s house. Like so many of the stories in the collection, the disparate narratives in “Gorgon” are woven together, but the links between them remain vague and open for the reader to contemplate. There are rarely major shifts in the lives of these characters. They evolve in subtle ways, slowly and sometimes almost imperceptibly, but the shift feels organic and natural.
Jenny’s narrative in “Gorgon” also illustrates the tensions of growing up. Her friendship with Alicia is strained in part because “Alicia would mature faster, would be noticed sooner.” Richie’s harassment of Jenny is clearly an immature boy’s way of acting on his attraction to her. The stranger in the woods has overtures of inappropriate sexual tension. Jenny catches the man urinating, and the experience is overlaid in contrast to Alicia’s maturing body. The broader narrative linking the many threads in this story is the stress of childhood evolving into sexual adulthood. Similar tensions are repeated throughout the story collection.
For instance, a similar strain occurs as one of two parallel plotlines in the story “Farmer, Angel.” Beth operates horses for hire and works as a guide. The youngest child in a family renting horses freaks out at the thought of encountering a farmer in the field. He screams and screams, throwing a fit his family has clearly experienced before. Although the fear of the farmer is never explained, Beth recognized “he would carry his fear of farmers silently and with shame, until it was buried by adolescence.” The child, like many of Plunkett’s characters, endures an unexplained pain that ultimately remains unresolved.
The horses are impossible to miss in the collection, peppered throughout the stories both as background scenery and as the center of the action. Their presence suggests a horse-girl quality to the women in these stories—introverted, thoughtful, overlooked. The inner crisis many of the protagonists of these stories face are because of these traits. Overcoming their passive, introverted lives is an essential change many of them seek to achieve, even if they are unsuccessful.
In other instances, the horses play a major symbolic role in the story. In “Rodeo,” April has taken her son Douglas to the show as a distraction. There they witness a horse fall over and snap its neck. Overlaying the rodeo is an examination of April’s marriage to a man who was “mild-mannered and somewhat old-fashioned in his habits,” but is actually enduring mental illness. Through the experience, April comes to understand the tough choice she has to make—to confront her husband—in the same way the cowboy would have to put down the horse with the broken neck.
A stand out story in the collection, “Prepare Her,” has the central tension revolve around whether Rachel’s daughter Bianca will have a long awaited bowel movement. The young girl is constipated and in pain, but also refuses certain treatments, like an enema. Bianca’s troubles are overlaid with Rachel’s reflections on the separation with her husband. Plunkett thrives on interiority, and Rachel is no exception. Waiting for Bianca’s relief, Rachel’s thoughts wander through the process. The separation from her husband is a slow, almost as much an intellectual exercise as an actual process as they unwind their lives. The story exemplifies the collection by twisting together multiple narratives and then quickly concluding. Despite refusing treatment, Bianca has a sudden urge and relieves herself on the bathroom floor.
Prepare Her is a collection featuring a cerebral examination of womens’ lives. Plunkett is methodical, layering narrative on top of narrative, creating well-considered arguments. Even when the links between tangents are not immediately obvious, Plunkett pulls them together in subtle ways.
By Genevieve Plunkett
Published July 13, 2021
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.