In her essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer balks at critics who pan fairy tales, fabulism, and other genres where magic insinuates itself in everyday experience. Bernheimer instead points out that the fairy tale’s grimness and infinite possibilities energize even writers of literary realism and every fiber of their stories—their characters, their plots, their themes, and each sparkling image. Bernheimer extends this, claiming that the history of fairy tales is the history of literature and its representation of human experience: “To learn the history of fairy tales,” Bernheimer notes, “is to learn the history of myth, printing, childhood, literacy, violence, loss, psychology, class, illustration, authorship, ecology, gender, and more.”
Maya Sonenberg’s most recent collection of stories, Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, guides readers through precisely such a crash course of dreamlike tales and realist reveries, all with a keen-eyed focus on the lives of women. The collection is Sonenberg’s third book of short stories, and it won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. In its twenty-three stories, Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters weaves its own dark mythos of the trials and hazards that face women who refuse to abandon their joy in the bleak forests of obligations to children, spouses, and communities. With elastic narrative structures and an incantatory voice, Sonenberg’s stories extend a hand to readers and pull them into such nether realms as a giant’s castle, a parking lot, a princess’s sickroom, a wading pool in a community park, and the skeleton of a whale. The wisdom whispered through these stories is wry and sharp, honest as a stiletto.
The collection’s inaugural stories are clever shapeshifters, morphing easily between fairy tale tropes, pop culture relics, and Americana. In “Pink Seascape,” a princess rides out a fever by watching Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies; the films prompt her to draw up a bullet-pointed list of how “things might be different if she could govern only women.” The entitled, oversexed princeling of “Dark Season” yearns only “to taste the cook’s daughter’s skin” and to throw off the yoke of inheriting his father’s kingdom. Inspired by his aunts’ tales, the prince swims across the sea and discovers the palace of a sorceress—a character who blends The Odyssey’s Circe, a dash of Frozen’s Elsa, and a dollop of middle-class woman beleaguered by beauty standards, late-stage capitalism, and regimens of “power workouts, grapefruit and kale diets, and Retin-A prescriptions.”
Sonenberg quarries other brilliant ore from the deposits of fairy tale tropes and modern living. For every abducted seventh child (subverting the “luck child” trope of European folktales) and enchanted pair of boots, Sonenberg conjures a counterbalance—a Bloomingdale’s or a Nordstrom, a derisive uncle laughing over an article in Popular Mechanics. Yet, coy and conspiratorial, the stories’ narrators regularly wink at the reader, reminding us that stories are protean. A prime instance of this occurs in “Four Phoebes,” a story that hints at multiple retellings of a folktale in which three women band together to rescue their sister, who has been kidnapped by a giant. Sonenberg suggests that the women’s names or relationships may change from one permutation of the tale to the next, but their role in the narrative remains the same: “In another version, they are four generations of the same family rather than sisters: Grandmother, Mother, Daughter, Granddaughter. Tzipporah, Perle, Frayda, Phoebe. All called Faigale, the little bird.”
These early stories account for most of the collection’s overtly fabulist pieces. This sequence of tales telegraphs a crisp message: the perils that women faced in fairy tales persist in reality, albeit in different forms. To bridge the fantastic with contemporary America, the collection pivots to “The Return of the Media Five.” This story morphs American history into a personal form of myth. At its heart is a woman who assumed the name “Susan,” a “new disguise . . . one of the million selves she’s been in the last twenty-odd years,” since the antiwar and protest movements of the 1960s. When Susan suspects that she may be pregnant, she must reckon with her past: she used her gig in a secretarial pool to photocopy classified FBI documents for her lover and their associates. While in hiding, Susan’s identity and history have become ephemeral, shadows of a woman who could have been. The realization that she can bequeath only stories jolts her: “Some people pass along photographs or spoon collections, one tiny teaspoon for every city they’ve lived in, or the tattered remnants of relatives’ clothes, or jewelry, or hand-stitched quilts, but she would need to find other residues to explain.”
In Sonenberg’s realist stories, the past transmutes from event to premonition—a pattern that hauntingly recalls the collection’s fairy tales. Still, these realist pieces crackle with the same twig-underfoot suspense, and Sonenberg heightens this eeriness with the texture of hybrid forms. To name only a few, Sonenberg incorporates bulleted lists, birth and divorce announcements, headlines, playbills from the career of a struggling actress, and footnotes that track research into the social structures of chimpanzees and evolutionary biology. Other stories—like “Six Views of Seattle” and “Seven Little Stories about 1977”—link painterly vignettes, lucid and liquid as a portfolio of watercolors. Pliant and yet tense, these stories paint a mythic, fog-shrouded America for women—one in which their pursuits of dreams and desire resist the rules inscribed by texts, society, and the demands of children and men.
Sonenberg’s Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters slashes through the thickets of form and convention with its feral and graceful stories, its resonant and wise voice, and its candid portrayal of women who resist the strictures of family, obligation, and duty. This collection’s wildness and freedom are stark reminders of why we need fairy tales, fables, and their incantations now, more than ever: to explain the world we inhabit, to transform it, and to conjure hope for something better.
Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters
By Maya Sonenberg
University of Notre Dame Press
Published August 1, 2022