In the debut collection of stories by Carmen Maria Machado, “Her Body and Other Parties” emerges as a mix of fantasy, horror, and satire, presenting a kaleidoscopic view of women’s lives in the modern world.
Through eight spellbinding stories, Machado explores the intricate psychologies of women, their bodies, and their experiences, challenging the reader to peer beyond the veil of the mundane.
“The Husband Stitch”
In a tale that mingles desire with dread, “The Husband Stitch” introduces us to a woman bound by a mysterious green ribbon around her neck, a symbol of her identity and autonomy. Her life with her husband unfolds with a palpable tension around this ribbon, culminating in a chilling climax that questions the sacrifices made for love.
Against the backdrop of a devastating virus wiping out humanity, “Inventory” chronicles a woman’s journey through loss and survival, cataloging her romantic encounters as she seeks solace on a remote island. This narrative weaves intimacy with isolation, painting a portrait of resilience in the face of annihilation.
“Mothers” delves into the harrowing aftermath of an abusive relationship, as the protagonist navigates the complexities of motherhood with a child left behind by her lover, Bad. The story traverses the landscapes of love, pain, and redemption, as the protagonist confronts her past and the specter of a family she hardly recognizes.
Machado reimagines “Law and Order: SVU” in “Especially Heinous,” where Detectives Benson and Stabler are haunted by the unresolved ghosts of murdered women. This retelling transforms the procedural drama into a phantasmagorical saga of obsession, rivalry, and the quest for justice amidst the echoes of the dead.
“Real Women Have Bodies”
In a dystopian vision, “Real Women Have Bodies” explores a world where women begin to vanish into the fabric of their clothing, literally and metaphorically. The protagonist’s fight to save her fading lover, Petra, from becoming another ghost in the garments sold at Glam, is a poignant commentary on body image and existence.
“Eight Bites” confronts the haunting reality of body image and self-acceptance through a woman’s journey post-weight loss surgery. As she grapples with the ghost of her former self, the narrative delves into themes of regret, self-loathing, and the eventual reconciliation with one’s body.
Returning to the scene of her formative years, “The Resident” follows a writer as she faces accusations of cliché and stereotype, only to emerge with a deeper understanding of her identity and the power of her voice. This story is a reflection on the pressures of artistic creation and the liberation found in self-acceptance.
“Difficult at Parties”
Lastly, “Difficult at Parties” navigates the turbulent waters of healing after trauma, as the protagonist attempts to reconnect with her partner, Paul. Her unique ability to hear the thoughts of porn actors becomes a metaphor for the struggle to find intimacy and understanding in the aftermath of violence.
The Woman (The Husband Stitch)
The central character in “The Husband Stitch” is a woman who wears a mysterious green ribbon around her neck, symbolizing her secrets and autonomy. She navigates the dynamics of marriage and motherhood, facing her husband’s growing curiosity about the ribbon, which ultimately leads to a dramatic and tragic conclusion.
The Narrator (Inventory)
In “Inventory,” the narrator is a woman cataloging her romantic and sexual encounters against the backdrop of a society being decimated by a deadly virus. She is introspective and resourceful, seeking connection and solace as she moves towards isolation on a remote island to escape the pandemic.
The Protagonist (Mothers)
This story’s protagonist grapples with the aftermath of an abusive relationship with her lover, Bad, and the sudden responsibility of caring for Mara, a child claimed to be theirs. She reflects on her turbulent relationship with Bad and navigates the complexities of unexpected motherhood and identity.
Detective Olivia Benson (Especially Heinous)
A reinterpretation of the character from “Law and Order: SVU,” Detective Benson in “Especially Heinous” is haunted by the unresolved cases of murdered women. She is depicted as determined yet burdened by the ghosts of victims, reflecting a deeper engagement with themes of justice and memory.
Detective Elliot Stabler (Especially Heinous)
Paired with Benson, Stabler is obsessed with his wife’s trauma and the darker aspects of their cases. His character in Machado’s retelling is complex, wrestling with personal demons and the challenge of facing his own limitations in seeking justice.
The Shop Girl (Real Women Have Bodies)
The protagonist of “Real Women Have Bodies” works at a boutique where she discovers the eerie phenomenon of women fading away, their essences sewn into dresses. She embarks on a quest to understand this mystery, especially as her lover, Petra, begins to fade, showcasing her determination and heartache.
The Woman (Eight Bites)
This character undergoes a transformative weight loss surgery, only to be haunted by the specter of her former self. Her journey is one of self-reflection, regret, and eventual acceptance, illustrating the complex relationship between body image, self-perception, and self-worth.
The Writer (The Resident)
Returning to the site of her childhood and early queer awakening, the writer in “The Resident” confronts critiques of her work and personal identity. Her story is a meditation on creativity, the scars of the past, and the struggle for authenticity and acceptance in one’s art and life.
The Protagonist (Difficult at Parties)
Dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event, the protagonist of “Difficult at Parties” struggles to reconnect with her partner, Paul. Her unique experience of hearing the inner thoughts of porn actors symbolizes her deep sense of disconnection and her quest for intimacy and understanding within her relationship.
1. Autonomy and Identity
Central to Machado’s anthology is the exploration of female autonomy and the quest for identity.
Through stories like “The Husband Stitch,” the narrative scrutinizes the societal expectations placed upon women, their bodies, and the sacrifices they are often coerced into making under the guise of love or duty.
The green ribbon serves as a powerful metaphor for the parts of oneself kept hidden, under lock and key, for fear of societal reprisal or personal loss.
This theme reverberates through the collection, presenting autonomy not just as physical independence but as an intricate dance between revealing one’s true self and protecting one’s innermost vulnerabilities from the world’s prying eyes.
2. The Embodiment of Trauma
Machado masterfully addresses the embodiment of trauma, weaving it through narratives that portray how past hurts manifest within both the mind and body.
In “Difficult at Parties,” trauma surfaces in the protagonist’s struggle to reconnect with her partner and find normalcy after a sexual assault, illustrating how experiences of violence leave indelible marks on both psyche and flesh.
Similarly, “Eight Bites” explores the physical and emotional scars of societal and self-imposed standards of beauty, showcasing how trauma can also stem from the internalization of external judgments.
These stories highlight the pervasive impact of trauma, challenging the reader to consider how pain and healing are intrinsically linked to our corporeal existence.
3. The Paradox of Visibility
Visibility, or the lack thereof, runs as a poignant thread through Machado’s collection, presenting a paradox where to be seen can be both a desire and a danger. “Real Women Have Bodies” portrays women who literally fade away, their physical forms disappearing even as they yearn to be acknowledged and remembered.
This narrative not only critiques the objectification and erasure of female bodies but also reflects a broader societal tendency to overlook or diminish women’s experiences and contributions.
The theme extends into the realm of the supernatural in “Especially Heinous,” where the ghosts of murdered women haunt the narrative, symbolizing those rendered invisible by violence and indifference.
Through these stories, Machado interrogates the complexities of being seen, weaving a narrative that questions whether visibility offers empowerment or renders one vulnerable to the gaze and judgment of others.
“Her Body and Other Parties” is not just a collection of stories; it’s an invitation to explore the depths of female experience, blurring the lines between the fantastical and the real, the horrific and the beautiful.
Carmen Maria Machado masterfully crafts a world where the body and soul of womanhood are both battlegrounds and sanctuaries, leaving readers to ponder the complexities of existence and the resilience of the human spirit.