Abby lives in Michigan with her parents where she works as a cashier at Meijer, a grocery store with which everyone in Michigan is familiar. Her mother frets over her despite Abby feeling her older sister’s drug issues are more pressing. Abby’s father was laid off years ago and hasn’t found work, so he’s basically a human couch.
While this all sounds drab, Abby’s inner life appears fairly rich. She has intense dreams that she then draws. After she graduated college, Abby attended the University of Michigan, and though it’s not clear if she pursued her artistic endeavors, she lies at her ten-year high school reunion, claiming she’s currently enrolled in U of M’s master’s in art program.
A rich inner life means Abby doesn’t go out much; in fact, the description of her reminds me much of a young Janeane Garofalo. But when she hears that Elise may be at the reunion — Elise, who was Abby’s best friend through 8th grade when Elise began professionally acting and eventually moved to California and fame — Abby has to go.
What Lauren Acampora has written in The Paper Wasp is a confusing story about obsession, personal greed, and possibly constructing dreams to guide the future. Let me back up. Elise does attend the reunion and laments all the fake people of Hollywood, how what she and Abby had was real, and then extends an open invitation to Abby to come visit some day. So, Abby steals her mom’s credit card and flies to California immediately.
Throughout the story, Abby, whom we assume we should be rooting for but I (and Biscuit and Lou, who read with me) found nearly impossible. The obsessive I, I, I of Acampora’s first-person narrative is unnerving, which is exacerbated by the “you” Abby uses when referencing Elise. Not her first name, but “you.” Abby’s end goal is unclear. I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s argument, with which I agree, that every story must have a character that wants something even if it’s only a glass of water. What does Abby want?
And why does Acampora throw in information that seems important but does little to drive the plot? For example, we learn Abby survived a suicide attempt her freshman year of college, which is why she never finished school. Abby meets an unpretentious guy working in film in L.A. only to learn he’s formerly Amish and from Michigan, and he really likes her. Also, Abby has always been obsessed with an art house film director named Perron, whom she might meet in L.A. if she’s in the right place at the right time. None of this adds up to a satisfying book, and I felt the ending came out of left field (though Lou saw it coming a mile away!).
Even Abby’s weird dreams that later play out as a guide to people and places in real life don’t quite make sense or add to the story. In fact, when Lou, Biscuit, and I met on videochat, we had completely different theories about the ending: Elise wasn’t real, Abby did not survive the suicide attempt, etc. In general, this was an unsatisfying read whose composition reminded me of when several MFA workshopped short stories are were forcefully woven together.