After living in New York for ten years and working as a television producer, Julia Slavin moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in 1992 to begin her career as a short story writer. She published a number of stories in journals and magazines such as Arkansas Review,Crescent Review, and Story over the next few years, garnering a Pushcart Prize and winning the prestigious Frederick Exley fiction competition along the way. Her first book-length publication, a collection of short stories entitled The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories, immediately met with very favorable reviews. Critics and readers alike found Slavin’s first book an impressive debut. A Washington Post reviewer called Slavin “a major discovery,” while Booklist labeled the work “a must read collection.”
The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories is a collection of twelve stories. They are all slightly surreal and always quirky. Slavin sets most of her stories in the mundane, sometimes stuffy world of suburbia. Her characters are generally thirtysomethings trying to accommodate their ideas about love and relationships to the pressures of everyday life. In spite of this, the stories are highly imaginative flights of fancy. Slavin’s straightforward prose contrasts deliciously with the outrageousness of her story.
To consider these stories only as offbeat, humorous fantasies, however, shortchanges both the reader and the stories. Readers who are willing to look beneath the hip exterior will find that the internal workings of the stories serve to explore some very real and very deeply felt fears. In many ways, the predominant images in the stories reveal deeper psychological issues, in much the same way that dream images can be used in psychotherapy.
In the opening story, “Swallowed Whole,” a suburban housewife named Sally admits to having a crush on her lawn boy, Chris. Within a few paragraphs, the two kiss, and the narrator swallows Chris whole. Sally and Chris carry on a strange affair, with Chris residing in her belly, until Sally awakens one day to bloody sheets and the sound of Chris mowing the lawn outside. While the story obviously and humorously turns on the double meaning of “swallowing” a man, the darker subtext of pregnancy and miscarriage perks along below the surface. The movement Sally feels in her abdomen, her vomiting, her fantasies, and the final bloody sheets all point to the ambivalence of pregnancy and the sorrow of miscarriage.
Slavin further taps into the anxieties of childbirth and child rearing in the next story in the collection, “Babyproofing.” In this story, a young couple with one baby put themselves into the hands of Mitzy Baker, the president and CEO of Baby Safe, Inc., to babyproof their home. Sarah, the wife, is beset with fears of all the possible catastrophes that could take their child from them. By the time Mitzy Baker is finished with the home, however, all of the couple’s belongings have been replaced with foam padding and all the trees have been cut down in the yard. Even Walter, the husband, has been banished from the home as a safety hazard for the duration of the “remodeling.” At the story’s close, Walter forces his way back into the house, which has been utterly transformed. Yet the family is not unhappy; as Walter says,
The three of us sit on the cushy floor, covered with Mitzy Baker’s foam padding. . . . Caroline can drag herself up on her toys and fall and not feel a thing. . . . Tomorrow we can wake up and relax, finally. Tonight we can sleep without dreaming.
In this story, Slavin taps into a parent’s deepest fear, that her child will somehow be injured or taken away through some carelessness on her part. What parents have not considered extravagant and excessive ways of keeping their children from harm? Slavin’s talent is that she is able to treat this fear sympathetically while carrying it to its absurd extreme.
The third story in the collection, “Dentaphilia,” is about a woman, Helen, who begins growing teeth all over her body. The narrator of the story loves Helen, and finds her beautiful in spite of the odd dentition. The name Helen, of course, often carries with it the allusion to Helen of Troy, mythologically the most beautiful woman of the ancient world. Slavin’s Helen finds herself...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)