Published by Doubleday ISBN 9780385543897
Hardcover, $22, 224 pages
In 2016, I read American Housewife. a hilarious collection of short stories by Helen Ellis I literally laughed out-loud at the stories of women with neighbor problems, reality show aspirations, book club issues and more. Her women get things done, and take no prisoners doing it. Given what happened since 2016, Helen Ellis was a little bit ahead of her time.
Her latest book is Southern Lady Code, a book of essays that is just as hilarious, though it is nonfiction. She opens with a story Making a Marriage Magically Tidy, where she confesses to not being the neatest housekeeper. When her patient husband asks her a year into their marriage to please keep the dining room table clean, as it is the first thing he sees when he comes home, Helen fears he wants a divorce.
She calls her mother in Alabama, who tells her that she married a saint and she needs to clean the damn table! Her mother is a frequent commentator in these stories, beginning her sentences with "Helen Michelle" followed by advice only a Southern mother can give. (Side note- my middle name is also Michelle, and after reading this I'm going to insist that my mother begin calling me "Diane Michelle" in a drawling Southern accent.)
The essay that I now consider a classic is The Topeka Three-Way which begins at a dinner party for three couples where the host asks "Have I ever told you my Topeka Three-Way Story?" How a person cannot want to hear what comes next is unfathomable to me. It begins on an airplane with a man who asks to switch seats with our host so he can sit next to a beautiful woman. People were staring at me on the beach as I guffawed reading this.
Many of the essays deal with being married, and in How to Stay Happily Married, Helen shares some very sage advice for wives:
"Don't let him see you get out of an athletic bra or into a pair of control-top pantyhose. Don't wear eyeglasses on a leash. Don't lotion your elbows in front of him in bed. Don't remake the bed after your husband has made it."She talks about her Grandpapa who insisted she write thank-you notes and "carried grudges like handkerchiefs". When she references Julia Sugarbaker's "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" rant, I could see and hear Dixie Carter giving that speech on Designing Woman.
We learn that "a hair bow clip is a Southern lady's tiara". Ellis says that she is "not a dresser-upper" but she is "put together" which in Southern Lady Code means "you can take me to church or red Lobster and I'll fit in fine." You can fill a notebook with all the new phrases you'll learn.
I could go on and on (and if you should ask me what to read, you will hear more about Southern Lady Code), but suffice it to say that this is wonderful book to give all your girlfriends, sisters, cousins, your hairdresser, favorite grocery store cashier, anyone you truly like. Then you can all get together, make Helen's grandmother's favorite things (cheese logs, onion dip, mail-order ham), drink wine, laugh, and take turns reading aloud from your post-it note stuffed copy of Southern Lady Code. Now that's a party!
If you like David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, and Laurie Notaro, put Helen Ellis on your must-read list.