Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories
by Wendi Kaufman

Stillhouse Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-990-51690-3.
Reviewed by Anita Lock
Posted on 12/04/2014


The first of hopefully many more books to come, Helen on 86th Street is a compilation of fourteen engaging and thought-provoking stories that feature women at difference ages and stages of their lives. Award-winning author Wendi Kaufman provides readers with a close-up observation of a host of dynamic characters, some named while others remain nameless. Many of these women are desperately trying to move beyond their complicated yet true-to-life scenarios. And while the voices of these women alternate first to third person from story to story, Kaufman also uses the rarest mode in literature—second person narrative—in two of her tales.

In "Talk," Kaufman presents an unnamed thirty-year-old woman who is viewed differently by those who talk to her. To name a few key players in that account, the woman's mother addresses her as if she is a child, while her boyfriend places her on the level of an idiot. In "Intimate Landscape," a wife tells her husband that she is ready to make a baby. But what starts out as an exciting sensual adventure turns into one disappointment after the other. Keeping in mind that Kaufman is using the second-person "you" in both stories, readers should not be surprised if they find themselves mentally walking in these women's shoes. How many of us can relate to hearing condescending voices over the years, suddenly losing our autonomy and being told what to do? Or trying to start a family, hoping against hope that, maybe this time around, we'll finally conceive?

Many of Kaufman's character sketches are teenage girls in broken homes. Yet within these circumstances, these teenage heroines are not only introspective, but they also take a critical look at those who most affect their lives, namely their parents. For example, Josie in "Package Deal" plays more of a practical role when looking into colleges for her boyfriend and herself than does her sickly father. In "Still Life," Luce goes against her mother's wishes about leaving for summer camp because she wants to be home with her boyfriend. Though she is smitten with teen love, Luce has a uncanny ability to see right through her parents' immaturity and lack of responsibility.

Helen on 86th Street is a definite must read.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Wendi Kaufman's fiction has appeared in various literary journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, Fiction, New York Stories, and Other Voices. Her stories have been anthologized in Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops, Elements of Literature and most recently, Faultlines: Stories of Divorce. She is a recipient of a fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the winner of a Mary Roberts Rhinehart award for short fiction, and a Breadloaf Writer's Conference David Sokolov Scholar in Fiction. For over a decade she has been a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and The Washingtonian. Visit her website.

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