Would an Erma Bombeck of the 21st century have subscribed to the New Yorker? If so, she might have written, or at least identified with, this debut essay collection by a writer who has appeared in that magazine and elsewhere but whose topics have resonance beyond the metropolitan parochial.
As she notes, like all mothers, Allen (The Long Chalkboard: and Other Stories, 2006) experiences parenting problems, such as the one detailed in “I Can’t Get That Penis Out of My Mind,” when she discovers that some boy has emailed her teenage daughter a photo of the title offender and she vacillates between rueful amusement and horror. “Just as grieving has its stages, I now enter a new stage of reacting to seeing a penis picture in your daughter’s email,” she writes. “I have passed through Shock, Panic, Hilarity, Pity; now, finally, I enter Outrage. My God, it is not all right to send a picture of an erect penis to a thirteen-year-old. What effect has it had on her?” Such problems give way to empty-nester issues, underscored in the aftermath of divorce. “I live alone,” she begins the next essay, “It’s About Time.” “These things happen. Your children grow up, your husband leaves, and then you are one. This is a happy story, I promise, but I do need to say this: Get ready. You may be next.” Throughout the book, Allen’s humor never approaches the belly-laugh level, like some of her New Yorker pieces; these are more in the vein of bittersweet, wry observation. And sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, as when the subject shifts to cancer and chemotherapy (“Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow”). Allen has toyed with mindfulness and meditation, and she plainly has the Twelve Steps lingo of AA down pat, but she writes like the woman next door, even if the next door isn’t in Manhattan.
These essays will resonate most strongly with women of a certain age and economic status.