Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is a surreal short story in which author George Saunders employs an epistolary style of writing to convey the actions and thoughts of the characters. The story’s narrator is keeping a diary, which itself forms the text of the story; he intends the diary to be saved for future generations that may want to have a glimpse of what his life—and twenty-first-century life in general—was like.
The diary entries begin after the author, having just turned forty, has “resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day” in the new journal. He hopes that in one year’s time, he will have written 365 pages—but he misses the very next day’s entry.
The next day, the author explains that he missed the prior day’s entry because his life is hectic. The day before, the bumper fell off of the “oldish” family car while he was picking the children up at school, and the family cannot afford to replace the car.
When he puts the bumper in the garage, he finds a dead rodent and disposes of it. The author resolves to “do better! Be kinder” and to start doing so immediately. He realizes that his kids will soon be grown and how sad it would be if their only memory of their childhood was how stressed he was. He wonders when he will be comfortable financially.
The next day, his daughter Lilly’s friend gives a “very depressing birthday party.” The party is in the birthday girl’s mansion, which has a family room complete with plasma TV, pinball game, and foot massager. The mansion also features thirty acres and six garages for all the family’s Ferraris and Porsches. The reader realizes that the party was depressing because the other family has so much more in the way of material possessions than the writer and his family. They even have a Steinway grand piano, “Picasso autograph, Disney autograph, dress Greta Garbo once wore,” and a massive garden that eclipses the size of the narrator’s entire yard.
In their massive garden, they have what they call “SGs” standing in formation. The SGs are refugees from countries where they were impoverished and lived in awful circumstances. They have come to the US to act as decorative live figurines for wealthy families. They are strung together with microline using the painless “Semplica” method and then arranged as ornaments.
The birthday girl’s father, Emmett, is a surgeon. Upon hearing about the narrator’s work, Emmett questions it as “strange,” “arcane,” “degrading,” and “offer[ing] no tangible benefit to anyone.” Because the narrator is depressed, he drinks too much and sulks while thinking about how much the other family has relative to what his family has. He writes,
Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very, very lucky. I know that. But still, it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate.
He ends by saying that he is still drunk and “so tired of work.”
The next day, having sobered up, he explains to his daughter Eva that the SGs are not sad. They get to send money home so that their families can have better lives in their countries.
His daughter Lilly now aspires to have a birthday party and presents to rival her friend’s. He feels discouraged because, he wonders,
where does girl of thirteen get idea that $300 = appropriate amount for b-day gift? When I was kid, it was one shirt, one...
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shirt I didn’t want, usually homemade.
Lilly decides not to have a party. The narrator asks if it is because she would be embarrassed for others to see their house and yard, and Lilly “burst into tears.” He decides that adding one figurine to brighten up the yard might help, but wonders if it would send the wrong signal to purchase the cheapest figurine.
He decides to order a cheetah for Lilly’s party, but realizes that it’s “not that simple” because he has had some recent problems with his credit card, which was declined when he took his family to dinner. At the time, he quickly left the restaurant and drove to an ATM, where his ATM card was also declined. Luckily, a nearby “wino” informed him that the ATM was broken. He paid cash for the meal but realizes that his credit cards are all maxed out. He acknowledges to himself that he is “stretched a bit thin these days.”
The narrator ponders that there is so much that he wants to do, experience, and give to his kids, and that time is fleeting. The kids are growing up so fast. He realizes that he cannot afford to purchase a cheetah for Lilly’s birthday. He cannot make the finances work and must think of something else to give to Lilly at a small family-only party in their kitchen.
Suddenly, his mood takes a turn for the better. He realizes that in the America of his time, anything is possible. He purchases a winning lottery ticket and wins ten thousand dollars. His wife is stunned. They ponder how to spend the money and decide to redo the yard, installing shrubbery and SG figures in time for his daughter’s birthday party. He realizes that happiness is still possible.
He acquires SGs to decorate their yard for Lilly’s birthday party and Lilly “literally bursts into tears of happiness!” He is on a buying spree, purchasing clothes that he had long deferred.
After Lilly’s party, the yard has been demolished, and the SGs are gone. The police come and have a good laugh at his expense, saying that the SGs are “off in activist van somewhere, laughing [their] butts off.”
Eventually, his daughter Eva confesses to having freed the SGs because she felt sorry for them. In self-justification for even having gotten the SGs in the first place, he now worries about them on their own:
Is it good when illegal fugitives in strange land have no money, no food, no water, are forced to hide in woods, swamp, etc., connected via microline, like chain gang?
The company that sold him the SGs will sue him unless he pays for them, and he does not have the money. He asks his wealthy father-in-law for a loan but is turned down because the father-in-law thinks he is irresponsible. He is back to where he was before he won the lottery—or perhaps even worse off.
As the story ends, the narrator ponders where the SGs have gone. He imagines each individual girl leaving her family and the only place she’s ever known to become an SG, thinking that she will return to her family eventually, “in victory, w/ big bag of gifts, etc., etc.” Ironically, the narrator wonders,
When will she ever see her home + family again? Why would she do this? Why would she ruin all, leave our yard? Could have had nice long run w/ us. What in the world was she seeking?