Home to Roy, snakes and lizards; Home to Francine, mistress of arpeggios; Home to Everyone But Us. by V.S. Kemanis
Everyone But Us – tales of women is an adult story book. Dear reader, do not look for fairy-tale endings. V. S. Kemanis is certainly one of the most intelligent writers I have read, writers of classics included. Her insight into human behavior is truly unusual and her ability to capture it in the words, gestures, the actions of her characters, and her ability to point us to inevitable implications, is remarkable especially for a woman analyzing other women in these 17 stories. She understands women in the United States cultural framework unlike any story writer I have previously read. In “Women I’ve Known,” she hints that a woman of “mixed” heritage, in search of her roots, has seen her archetypes in marketplaces and crowds in industrial as well as developing countries, but she relies on facial characteristics for the “recognition” of self and does not imply that our cultural norms extend beyond the oceans. But in this story, she acknowledges the angst of an immigrant culture looking for its roots, maybe looking for that “mirror,mirror on the wall.” Renee is looking for something unavailable in her usual milieu.
And maybe that is the unifying theme of these stories: looking for something unavailable in one’s usual milieu. Most, if not all of these women, are unfulfilled – mostly intellectually, but sometimes sexually. Kemanis deals forthrightly with women’s attractions to other women and, in one story, a woman’s bisexual husband.
Kemanis’s attention to detail is wonderful. She writes of plantains in Cartegena; fish markets in Tokyo; the relentless heat and humidity of the American South; the excruciating frustration of an 89-year-old woman trying to buy cereal and ice cream in an impersonal American supermarket. She writes about women in varying economic and social circumstance: Francine, the circus queen in “Poodle Lady;” Donna, the unhappy socialite and her circle of insincere friends; a cold corporate type in “Hard Sell,” whose every male friend and acquaintance seems to be named Michael; the suburban mom in “Cushion”; Victoria, the pianist in, perhaps my favorite, “Pianissimo,Fortissimo.” And Kemanis does not just skirt the surface. She really knows Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, the “Appassionata.” She really knows the suburban patio home. She really knows the marketing departments. She knows the world of ballet and dance in “Priscilla and I.” These are believable stories and believable characters. She shows us the yoga class world and the flower shop world through the eyes of Lauren and Barbara, “They’d been cut from the earth, just as she’d been cut from the ideas and dreams that had nourished and elevated her above the tediousness of everyday existence.’
She also understands their interactions with their men and is able to convey that in several of the stories, most notably in “The Missing and Uninvited,” and the pathos that sometimes engenders: ‘When he spoke again, his voice was barely more than a whisper. “It’s a shame you’re so disappointed in me.”’
These are not happy stories, but they are unwaveringly fascinating: “Call Me Back,” being one of the most interesting in which Joanne Hyland seems to have a doppelgänger named Joan Hyde, or perhaps schizophrenic episodes, or perhaps she is a metaphor for the radically disparate ways other people see us. “Cactus Flower” was the most unexpected woman. “Thirty Dollars a Bag” leads us to an inevitable conclusion as does “Ninety Degrees.” “Everyone But Us” has the most unanticipated ending.
I really enjoyed each and every one of these stories. Each one creates its own universe of people you have known superficially and wondered about, but never took the time or trouble to understand.