While the girls and women who inhabit Cohen’s 14 stories share tangential relationships, what most binds this collection together is a sense of overpowering dread.
“Naughty,” about a little girl named Amelia who's convinced her infant sister is a changeling, sets the horror-story tone for what follows. Nothing supernatural, or exactly murderous, happens, but the emotional menace swirling under the characters’ skins continually threatens to erupt—and sometimes does—into public chaos. So in “Bad Words,” second grader Yael reacts to her Orthodox Jewish parents’ impending divorce with a taboo dinner request, fully aware that “eating a cheeseburger is the same thing as killing someone.” By “A Girl of a Certain Age,” Yael has grown into a young woman fascinated by the murder of a co-worker by her seemingly normal fiance. In “Guns Are Safer for Children Than Laundry Detergent,” she creates an imaginary child with her boyfriend to avoid having a real baby. College student Sophie, who is Amelia’s former classmate and Yael’s future roommate, becomes the surrogate mother for a creepy professor and his wife in "Surrogate"; years later, in “Odd Goods,” she accuses another creepy academic of sexual harassment, exaggerating the details if not the truth. Meanwhile, Amelia reaches adolescence with a serious eating disorder. In “Expecting,” she’s described as “more virus than girl” by the teacher whose life spirals into lies after she and Amelia catch each other puking in the bathroom. Cohen’s girls and women are damaged but not evil. Addicted to small lies and thievery, Amelia’s sister, Karin, is also drawn to protecting others: a sometime classmate “allergic to the sun” in “Recess Brides”; a severely disabled child in “Old for Your Age, Tall for Your Height”; and skeletal Amelia in “Care.” Years later, in "Wife," Karin has an epiphany: “She wasn’t going to be a filthy whore. It was a terrible thing to realize, that she actually was what everyone took her for: wife, mother, schoolteacher.” Being ordinary is what scares these troubled women most.
A chilling view of womanhood—made up of lies, secrets, and fear—expressed in elegant prose.