Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

I’m starting with a brief note that while we aren’t close friends, I do know Paula Bomer through my time networking as a creative writing student and book reviewer. And, because I live in South Bend, Indiana, which is where she grew up, we have met up to share some delicious Chinese food. Pics or it didn’t happen, you say?

Because I care about Paula Bomer and am totally biased, I’m letting you know so that I follow the ethical practices of reviewing. Moving forward!

Inside Madeleine is a collection of short stories and one novella. The stories seem to be about the same girl on the cusp of womanhood, though she always has a different name: she’s from South Bend, wears a leather jacket, doesn’t have much money, befriends a wealthy person who thinks she’s tacky, moves to Boston, and has a penchant for receiving oral sex. It’s hard not to wonder why these similar characters weren’t meshed into one and written into a second novella. I’ve read books that contain two novellas, and I love it. In fact, I think the novella is the most underrated genre.

When compared to the Bomer’s novella, the titular Inside Madeleine, I felt the short stories couldn’t compare. The longer the work, the more Bomer seemed in her element. I cared so hard for Madeleine, understood and couldn’t comprehend her, rooted for her and knew failure was just around the corner. Her body is the true main character, though Madeleine is the delusional yet deliberate conductor of it. She’s the fat girl, the joyful slut, the anorexic, the wife, nobody’s girlfriend, somebody’s somebody.

There were moments in the novella that circled back to some of the short stories. For example, the first short story, “Eye Socket Girls,” is about a young woman in a facility for those suffering from anorexia. “We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all,” the narrator laments. The narrator, who is on the mend, befriends a girl who is near death. In the novella, Madeleine finds herself in the same position.

I don’t want to make the assumption that the author feels a personal connection to the type of girl she writes and rewrites in this collection, but I have come across a number of authors and artists who obsess (and I don’t meant that negatively) over the same experiences or character traits or emotions. Lidia Yuknavitch comes to mind. Picasso’s “the blue period,” too. Irvine Welsh’s drug addicts. Jhumpa Lahiri’s immigrant families from Calcutta. To me, it starts to feel like the creator needs to work the process out of his/her system and then share the final product. However, I can also easily see how other readers would cherish being part of an artist’s journey. Just depends on what kind of reader you are.

Likely, because I spent so many years reading one story collection after another, I’ve grown fussy about them, thinking harder than necessary about the order of the stories, themes, how stories link and tie in together. I was trained to do this in two different creative writing programs. A reader with a different background likely has not. For example, Kellan @ 29Chapters loved Inside Madeleine, and I agree with her reasoning. Bomer’s stories feel like someone’s taken a vegetable peeler to your skin. I’ve never been so aware of my body as a thing as when I’m reading Bomer’s work. That’s both uncomfortable and fascinating. I was completely transfixed by her first short story collection, Baby, and taught the titular story repeatedly and an all-women’s college — much to the horror of my students (HA-HA).

While the short stories didn’t fully work for me, I loved the novella and will be thinking about Madeleine and her body for a long time.

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11 comments

  1. I often find short stories difficult to engage in. There just isn’t enough time to build interesting characters or complicated plots. Recently, I have become fond of novellas. It seems some stories are perfect for the novella format. Great review of Inside Madeleine and I don’t mind that you are totally biased. 🙂

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  2. Your introduction reminds me it’s a long time since you did an author interview. How about it? I would be interested in Bomer’s response to the points you make. I prefer long form fiction too, but I appreciate how an author might wish to use herself as a template to investigate various issues without worrying about inconsistencies. On the other hand there are collections of stories which when read together constitute a novel.

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  3. A book that makes me that aware of my body as a thing sounds impressive as an accomplishment, but deeply uncomfortable to read as the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with this format – short stories and a novella – and I really enjoyed your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of it as a structure – thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks for reading, Lou! I think smaller presses are more frequently doing short stories that end in a novella, and I really enjoy that format. However, the novella tends to outshine the short stories (for me), so it’s not always the most effective formatting choice.

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