Has anyone ever told you a secret that made you sick to your stomach? Did your parents ever admit a wrongdoing that changed the way you saw them? Have you ever felt the panic and the anxiety of losing someone you loved because you grew apart or someone got bored? If the answer is yes to any of the above, it's likely that Pia Z. Ehrhardt's collection, Famous Fathers & Other Stories, will make you want to cry and dig your heels in to avoid what she offers up as the truth about life, love and marriage.
In her stories, Erhardt explores the not-so-secret lives of several not-so-fulfilled women and their attempts to negotiate between their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and lovers; and their desire to escape the monotony, resignation, jealousy and possessiveness that characterize their daily lives and relationships. With a full assortment of complacent adulterers and willful accomplices, the book exhibits a parade of despicably pathetic female protagonists in a variety of demoralizing situations -- from mundane affairs to rape, physical abuse and torture -- and questions their ability or willingness to rescue themselves.
One such character is Bea, the woman in "Someone's Flowered Dress," who has an annual affair with a pilot, Dan, every April. The situation is a desperate one in that Bea constantly compares herself to Dan's dead wife who died in a car accident after he fell asleep at the wheel. She attempts to secure love and attention from him while he remains emotionally unavailable and takes her for granted.
Throughout the story, Bea's actions are likened to the image of a dog, such as when she describes meeting him at the train station, "She can't walk slowly to him, but makes herself not run, so her approach is some kind of trot." Later during sex when she asks him to say her name and he whispers the name of another lover, "She gets up, walks down the hall, waits there wishing she could remove her head and think only with her heart like a dog who is happy when the master walks in," as a response to his blatant disrespect for her.
Clearly, there's more to her wish to be a master's dog than a desire to think from the heart. The dark and often deeply twisted psyche of these female characters, their male co-conspirators -- and the cuckholded victims left in their wake -- is chilling in its resignation and leaves little room for faith in fidelity and the sanctity of marriage. These stories articulate the deepest fears of any monogamy-minded individual and seem to ask whether true freedom or love can be found in acknowledging the primal, needy and often self-destructive behavior that tempts these characters.
In a world of clichd scenarios, the women in the stories often take whatever attention they can get, adorning themselves with mementos of their affairs, counting stolen moments and gifts as their own while wondering how much of their lover they truly possess. They push limits and seek thrills without regard to consequences, with an eagerness to cheat and a disregard for marriage and family units.
In these love affairs, women like Bea are taken-for-granted attention-seekers who often appeal to men through sexual posturing--where love is a game to be won, a thing to be had and a competition to be sized up. Sex is a modality used to secure attention or affection, to be given or withheld for the purpose of rebellion or escape.
Whether they are married and about to cheat, have been married for years and are cheating, or are single and having an affair with a married man or an emotionally unavailable male, in every permutation there is little to suggest that these flawed characters feel a sense of remorse for their actions or a real respect for themselves. Rather, the stories are punctuated by moments of realization which are often followed by relapses so that at the end of each, the reader is always unsure of what the character has learned.
When the women cheat, they seem frivolous and cruel, in some cases a mother abandoning her children and leaving her home, as in "Driveway" where the cheating mother leaves her husband and three children. In the opening story "Running the Room," a mother and her adult daughter sign up for cooking classes together, but the mother uses the time to rent hotel rooms with her lover. Her daughter is willing to keep the secret from her father and also is tempted to cheat while killing time waiting for her mother after class ends. In some of the stories, the husbands are complicit and also cheat, but they aren't portrayed as men who leave their children.
Likewise the women involved in these affairs are often barren. There is no mention of children for Bea, for the daughter in "Running the Room," the cheating sister in "Abita Springs," nor the divorcee sleeping with a younger married man in "Tell Me in Italian."
This pervasive female infertility and disregard for the effects of the affairs on other family members involved seems to suggest that the lives of these middle-aged women are so off-track that they'll never fit the mold for a content and devoted wife, caring mother, loving daughter or generous sister. In many ways, the sorrow and heartbreak that plagues the lives of these women appears to be self-imposed, leaving the reader with little sympathy for their situations. Why does Bea allow this man to come into her life for one month out of the year and ignore her for the rest of it?
Yet at the same time, these characters are asking for something. It's not a lot, but it is the open-ended question that marks the conclusion of every story where hope for the happiness of these women might be found. After Bea and Dan have a fight and he's packing his bags to leave her, she has a moment where she realizes that "He's a lousy, selfish jerk using his tragedy as a free pass. Bea wants him out of her house or with her always. The ultimatum is so clear to her right then. She wants to freeze this feeling while it's fresh so after he's gone she can use it."
These remarks imply that Bea will make a choice to reject what clearly can't make her happy, but the moment is tenuous at best. At the end of the story as Bea is about to make her final angry remark to Dan, she withholds it because he has stopped packing to watch her flying about the house in her furious rage. Does that mean he has suddenly realized he loves her, or that she's chosen to accept the limited love he has to offer? Is she letting go of an imperfect relationship or the idea that relationships can be perfect?
Again and again, these characters bring themselves to the brink of destruction, and the endings often result in ambiguity and longing. These characters want alternatives to what life has handed them or to what life has become. They are testing boundaries, but what have they learned in the process? The reader can never really be sure.
Ehrhardt's language is terse and direct and tries to force the reader to take each statement as cold, hard fact, like the expressions of pain and longing voiced by her characters. Yet, as a reader you might find yourself unwilling to accept that all relationships turn into such vulgar situations as these. You might be unwilling to accept that one day your marriage will bore you, and you'll cheat on your spouse.
Erhardt does offer some alternatives. There are healthy, fertile relationships on the periphery of these affairs. She's not glorifying the ability to articulate a self-destructive need, but rather, it seems to be that she's saying the truth is that there is a need among these women for an alternative to what life is or has become for them. This need and this longing bring out the flaws and frailties of human beings, but at the same time, they have a choice and the choice can bring either freedom or total destruction.