The Paper Wasp by Laura Acampora

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.

19 comments

    • The title doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story at all other than the fact that paper wasps gather wood pulp, etc. to make nests, and the movie star brings in Abby to set up home with her. I guess I could dig deeper, but I did not.

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  1. Although we read this fairly recently, all I really remember about it is my feeling of sheer bafflement (and not in an enjoyable way)! At least it made for a good buddy read because we could all debate what in the world was actually going on…

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    • You added so much to the conversation because you work with children. All the stuff you pointed out about how certain plot points would never happen surprised me. In fact, the plot points that surprised me were predictable to you, which is why I enjoy reading with you so much.

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  2. Next time I read Kurt Vonnegut I’ll have to think about what it is his protagonist wants. Meanwhile I don’t think I’ll be reading any Acampora’s. You have to wonder what it is that publishers see in creative writing course first novels that the rest of us don’t. Promise?

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    • I think that a creative writing course can produce a new-feeling novel, but the problem is to make it work for the general public, the author still needs to reconsider where the novel fits into the market and how much they deviate from reader expectations. I prefer a book that feels both old and new, not new and pointless.

      You know, I swear the “glass of water” in Breakfast of Champions is just getting to the part when the novel becomes metafiction.

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  3. Sounds like a great buddy read because you actually had things that really needed nutting out.

    Did you talk much about the “you” business. It makes it sound like it’s a letter (or something similar) to Elise. How does that affect the story? Is she justifyIng herself? Does she, in these “you” bits, convey an attitude towards (about) Elise? Is she expressing envy, asking for help, justifying herself? There has to be a reason for that “you”, though if you can’t work it out, it hasn’t been an effective choice.

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    • We did talk about how the use of “you” makes it seem like there is no one Abby would even consider her “you,” other than Elise, giving Elise more importance than anyone else in the story. Typically, when we say “you,” there is an antecedent. In Abby’s mind, there is no need.

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  4. Too bad! I like that cover and it sounds like there are some interesting concepts mixed in there. Is the book supposed to be written to Elise? The use of “you” for no particular reason would annoy me, I think.

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    • Another reader just asked that question. There are very few books that use “you” that I also enjoy. In the case of Abby, she uses “you” to refer to Elise, and only Elise, which made me think there was no question about who the most important person to Abby is.

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  5. I LOLd at the human couch comment. We all have one of those in our lives it seems haha

    I know what you mean about including weird little details that have no meaning – like, what’s the point? I feel like a detective in a mystery story that doesn’t end up having a mystery in it. It seems like wasted space in the reader’s brain.

    Also- I find the cover of this book super creepy!

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    • To be fair, I do struggle with books that are simply all character development. Even if that character gets into one shenanigan, I’ll hang in there. The Paper Wasp took foreeeeeever to get to any kind of shenanigans.

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