4 Stars - Strongly recommended by Leland
Publisher: Dock Street Press
Guest Reviewed by Leland Cheuk
A doll is a model of a human being, a plaything that exists in the service of its owner. Doll Palace, Sara Lippmann’s debut story collection from Seattle’s Dock Street Press, transports us into the secret inner lives of society’s dolls: women. Lippmann’s dolls are preyed upon by older men, hungry babies, and disappointing husbands. They lose their innocence during summers on the Jersey Shore. They endure Disney World with their children and discover their marriages are fraudulent while stuck in traffic. Unexpected transgressions lurk in the shadows of Lippmann’s precise and idiosyncratic observations. Sex and the lure of the forbidden are through lines that bind her protagonists like the paper cutout dolls on the book’s cover. I drifted dreamlike through Lippmann’s spare, quiet sentences, only to be shaken awake by unexpected plot turns and character revelations that forced me to view her women in a new light.
In “Jew,” a married couple takes a break from child-rearing to visit a shabby immigrant shop that sells everything from flip-flops to hookah drags. The husband wants to relax and smoke like they’re young marrieds on a staycation. The wife is more concerned with getting home to breast feed the kid. Meanwhile, the Jewish shopkeeper watches and serves. On the way out, the wife finds herself alone with the shopkeeper. What happens in just a few sentences reveal a subversive longing that the reader will not expect from the mother.
In “Body Scan,” a well-to-do couple is stuck in traffic. When the wife picks up her husband’s phone, what she finds reminds the reader of yet another way that women are casually treated as dolls by narcissistic men:
Porn. Stu has porn apps on his Droid. Bright squares like mosaic tiles, slashed triple X, bundled into an innocent hub, a folder marked ME.
Even if the men in Doll Palace tend to view women as playthings, the women are the ones to assert their sexuality first. When the teenager in “Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart” begins a dalliance with an adult named Repo (doesn’t the name say it all?), she knows exactly what she’s doing and admits she’s “no stranger to poor judgment.” In “Reunion,” a mother runs into an ex-boyfriend in a playground, twenty years after she last saw him. “Dude! He says. What’s up?” There’s a section break before Lippmann drops this sledgehammer:
The last time I saw Ryan he was double-teaming me with some guy, his “bro” from the trading floor, another sweaty gambler, the three of us out of our minds, this was the nineties so we were game, we were up for anything.
I loved that this revelation was delivered in a long, explicative sentence, a departure from Lippmann’s taut style. Her rangy voice bounces effortlessly from blunt to withholding, from eccentric first-person narration to high literary third-person, and from brooding and sad to comic relief.
Lippmann does male leads justice as well. In “Queen of Hearts,” a husband/father falls in love with a drug-addled babysitter in a marriage that sounds more miserable than a song by The National. Toothpaste becomes a Chekhovian symbol of the domestic nightmare:
Couples share everything. Marcy lifts the amber bottle from my hand, shakes once, holds it up to the bulb like a sun catcher, but we’re empty.
Lippmann’s ability to wring genuine surprise from the reader is her greatest gift. The collection runs a little long, and eventually, the pleasant, hard-won surprises suffer from repetitiousness. Another stultifying marriage. Another young woman itching to do the wrong thing. But Doll Palace is an accomplished work that reminds us that eccentricity and mystery hide in the familiar. A doll is a model of a human being, but Lippmann’s dolls don’t play.
Leland Cheuk’s novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). He is a MacDowell Colony fellow, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Lunch Ticket. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives in Brooklyn.