Book Review: Party Girls by Diane Goodman

One of the great joys and struggles in writing fiction is the process of developing characters. The word here is, indeed, “developing” and not “creating.” Many fictitious character are an assemblage of parts: a boss’s arrogance here, a neighbor’s laziness there—and in Party Girls, Diane Goodman’s 2011 collection of short stories, the delicate crafting and organizing of these characteristics into the women who flesh out these stories makes this book a humorous and often challenging study of humanity. Thematically, each story pulls readers into the lives of “party girls”—women who plan for, attend or are ostracized from social events and lives in their narrow worlds. Goodman’s process of character development is so seamless the reader must remind herself that the women appearing here are not likely to show up at her next party and demand attention. This is a relief because the standouts, who include an isolated mother, a lonely chef, and a manipulative, naïve ex-banker, are not the life-of-the-party party girls any hostess wants to entertain or endure.

Take Candace, for example, the protagonist of “CandyLand,” the collection’s third story. At 60, she has worked her way to the top of the banking ceiling—executive vice president—but her life is empty. With no friends, and an imaginary husband, her clients are the only people she truly knows, perhaps because they are just like her: “They are self-important, entitled, often rude. They can be judgmental. Mean. Candace is often amazed at how ugly they are inside.” Shortly into the story, Candace has even these relationships taken away when she is let go, and Goodman takes the reader into Candace’s gaudy, empty life, and a depressing St. Patrick’s Day party.

“The little dogs, Fred and Wilma, trot around her feet as she works in the kitchen,” writes Goodman, before moving on to Candace. “She had thought about dressing as a leprechaun but then decided on a green jumpsuit with a gold lame belt, sparkly gold sandals, and green and gold dangling shamrock earrings. More hostess-appropriate.”
Goodman’s ability to find the quirky and pair it with the familiar means that each character in this collection, whether prominent or supporting, is reminiscent of someone any reader would know. This adds depth to the characters and stories—readers like to feel a sense of common ground with the characters who occupy their free time—but it also means that some of the characters are so irritatingly real it’s hard to remember they are figments of someone’s imagination. Yet the very process of showcasing such individuals allows readers to fall into a story and find their own likenesses interacting with and befriending (or not) the characters. In this way Goodman helps readers understand the world and the people who inhabit it—themselves included.

As “CandyLand” progresses, Mr. and Mrs. Kramer, Candace’s former boss and his wife arrive, becoming the only guests at the party. This leaves Candace confused and alienated, drawing out her true nature.
“‘Are we the first ones here?’ Mr. Kramer asks, hesitantly. He is thinking that at least her own staff would have stopped by. He felt it was the least they could do. When Candace hears his question, the full weight of what is happening begins to descend and the steam from the pot of potatoes rises up and into her face. The heat makes her angry. Look around, fool she thinks but says, ‘Yes you are!’” Candace’s fury appears as mashed potatoes spattered on her green jumpsuit, and as she demands hunger of her two guests, “it sounds almost like she’s singing.”
Goodman’s ability to shape her characters is such that the reader may feel embarrassed and sad for them, but it is this emotive response that fosters a sense of understanding between page and person. Envisioning Candace’s pride in her getup and her hope for the evening is easy, and depending on where the reader stands—cringing each time the boss tries to throw a party, or wondering where all the guests are—this is a story to which all people can relate. Furthermore, Goodman has woven the need for human interaction and acceptance into each story, humanizing characters that chafe against the grain of social interaction with awkwardness. In “CandyLand” this note of empathy comes with a simple history, and the foundation of Candace’s personality becomes clear.

“Her mother and father had named her Candy, a confection,” Goodman writes, her tight sentences sharp with disapproval. “But she was not the daughter her mother envisioned. … Candy wanted to make her mother proud but she couldn’t because her parents were too much in love. They were so much in love that there wasn’t enough room for their child, especially such a big child.”

Goodman’s work as a caterer and chef in Miami Beach has no doubt led to her sifting and blending of fact and fiction in each of the nine stories in this collection. With a focus on food, relationships and the ways in which base instincts are involved when the two intersect, the stories contained within this collection depict the life of a party girl as less than glamorous.

In “Abracadabra,” the second piece in this work, the nameless narrator and protagonist engages in a whirlwind affair with a stranger and loses all she has built as a restaurateur and chef when he robs her in the night. Her plight is that of many ambitious women in the creative world: “I threw myself into culinary school and then into work,” she explains. “I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.”
This is the most difficult narrative to read, for the narrator is so obviously vulnerable that one cannot help but feel sorry for her. The converse is that it’s hard to pity someone who so blindly hands over all she has worked for to a stranger, yet Goodman’s use of the magic metaphor and her ability to evoke compassion make this also the best story in the collection.

Additionally moving are “Dancing,” the only story with a truly heroic and eventually confident protagonist, and “The Other Mothers,” in which a mother and pilot’s wife is displaced on an island for her husband’s work and ostracized by the women on the island who could be her lifeline.
“Sometimes the other mothers say ‘Hi’ or ‘Hola’ when I approach them,” she explains, “but then they turn back to each other. … I can’t tell them apart. They are impossibly thin, polished and flawless like statues. Each one is astonishingly beautiful in different ways yet interchangeable: at one time or another, each one has touched me on the shoulder to compensate for her disinterest.”

So many of the scenes and actions completing this collection are chillingly familiar. Who does not know women like that; who cannot remember a time she was excluded from “the” party of the year? For all of the pettiness that parties stir up, for all of the desire, and yes, fun, at the end of the event, those of a more reflective nature will sit back and contemplate what worked, what didn’t, what should be done next time. Goodman’s distinct background certainly enabled her to look at the party world from this angle and apply it to her writing, and all readers of this collection will be better prepared for the next fete for it.

Goodman’s ability to isolate traits and scenarios from the real word and blend them into rich stories has done more than simply satisfy. It has entertained. And what hostess—gracious or otherwise—would refuse such a comment?
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Filed under: Book Review, Prose