Review: ‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️☆☆

Hot Little Hands contains nine funny, confronting and pitch-perfect stories about stumbling on the fringes of innocence, and the marks desire can leave.

And so says the blurb on the back cover of this short story collection. It certainly sounds promising. But funny? No. Confronting? Yes, in parts. And pitch-perfect? Mmmm … not sure.

Chagall’s Wife

Sascha is 14 years old and acutely aware of her blossoming sexuality.

I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women, but I knew whatever it was, I had it.

She is ‘on the brink of discovery’, chasing ‘… the heat, the hardness, the insects…’, and tests the water with her ‘daggy old science teacher’, Mr Ackerman.

This portrayal of an adolescent in the guise of a seductress, trying so hard to appear composed and knowing, yet betrayed by naive comments and awkward body language, is compelling. I wanted to dive into the story and save her from humiliation and embarrassment, but perhaps I should have been concerned about greater dangers … 😳

Jewish History

Anya is a first-generation immigrant teen from Russia. ‘… in her fake-leather sneakers and second-hand clothes, [she] just wants to fit in at her Melbourne school.’ Acutely aware of her ethnicity, Anya searches for opportunities to bridge the gap between her and her peers.

I can’t stop thinking about how much I love Bradley Ruben, how brave he is for saying what he said, and how I wish I had a sad Holocaust story to tell, so he would know I’m not so different from him and all the others.

Her assimilation attempts are understandable but misguided, and merely highlight the differences she’s so anxious to hide.

While I empathised with Anya, her story fell flat. There was no build-up of tension. It meandered aimlessly then petered out to nothing – a very unsatisfying conclusion.

The Withdrawal Method

Claire is good at beginnings. Mid-twenties and mid-PhD, she’s moved halfway around the world to San Francisco – where the line between adolescence and adulthood is blurry, and every night feels new. Too smart to be serious, she divides her time between her friends, her band, her ex-boyfriend, potential new boyfriends, whiskies with beer backs, and occasionally her thesis. And then, by accident, life starts to get messy.

The messy bit is an unwanted pregnancy – unplanned, yet not planned to avoid.

If 50 is the new 40 and so on, then Claire is proof that 25 is the new 15. Self-absorbed. Hedonistic. Irresponsible. She stumbles and fumbles through each day in a fog, determined to avoid any self-examination, using meaningless sex and excessive alcohol as distractions.

Claire’s is a familiar tale, but as a character, she doesn’t have much to recommend her. And at the end of the story, I was left with the thought: So what? 🤷‍♀️

Warm-Ups

Kira is a 13-year-old Russian gymnast, who fantasises about Dimitri, their first kiss, and his applause and admiration when she performs a difficult routine perfectly in competition.

She tries to chart her own course but struggles with parental inconsistencies. And who doesn’t identify with her confusion?

I try to be good but it’s hard when they sometimes treat me like an adult, and sometimes treat me like a child, just based on whatever happens to suit them at the time.

Excited about a life-changing opportunity to perform in America, she uses emotional blackmail – ‘If I can’t go to America, I’d rather starve and die.’ – to secure the permission of her reluctant parents.

It’s a story that lulls you with its steady rhythm, then hits you like a lightning bolt. 😲 You’re left with a lingering sense of dread and a need to know what happens next. I think it’s the jewel in the crown of this story collection.

Same Old Same As

Ramona is a Year 9 student receiving counselling for PTSD following an accident at home. After her therapist labels a post-accident incident with her stepfather as ‘abuse’, Ramona uses this to her advantage – as an excuse to avoid unpleasant activities, both at school and at home; as leverage to attract the attention of her peers. And she does so with no thought as to the ramifications of her actions.

Was a boundary crossed by her stepfather? Or did Ramona merely misinterpret an awkward yet innocent interaction? The ambiguity will torment you long after the story’s end. 🤔

The Pretty One

This continues Claire’s story as a 27-year-old, still flirtatious, still promiscuous, still drinking to excess and totally self-absorbed. But now, she’s infatuated with 19-year-old Sy – self-assured, restrained, deliberate, in touch with his emotions – everything Claire is not.

We’re painstakingly walked through each stage of their story, from hanging out, to dating, then seeing each other, being in a relationship, and then breaking-up. Through it all, Claire remains insecure, needy, jealous and afraid to be vulnerable. Yawn! 😴

Head to Toe

Elise and Jenni lost their virginity at twelve and thirteen, respectively … In the three years since then, they had both hooked up with a bunch of guys … They had also kissed girls; mostly just for fun, mostly each other, mostly when drunk, mostly to drive some guy at a party insane, sometimes because they were just bored. Both of them had tried MDMA, coke, speed and mushrooms. Jenni had also taken acid. Elise had once snorted keta, and she liked to smoke weed. But mostly they just drank.

So much, so soon. Now bored and melancholy once more, the girls look to recapture something lost by resurrecting a childhood passion for horse-riding.

This is the longest story in the collection, but the extra words and pages don’t manage to elevate it. For the most part, I shared the boredom and melancholy of the characters, although a disturbing and graphic sexual encounter – later described by Elise as ‘pretty vanill’ – was unexpected. While perhaps gratuitous, it did provide an effective juxtaposition with horse camp – two worlds, childhood and adulthood, opposite ends of the spectrum, and two girls caught in the ‘no man’s land’ between.

Plus One

Amelia is a 22-year-old wunderkind blogger-turned-author, fresh out of college. The youngest child in a high-achieving family, she is expected to realise her full potential. But when she quits her job after landing a book deal, she fills her days with futile distractions, marking time, watching her friends moving forward with their lives. Procrastination soon morphs into a crisis of confidence, in which she questions her relevance and resolves to ‘… do absolutely anything to avoid writing her book.’  Including having a baby. 🤦‍♀️

Your Charm Won’t Help You Here

Oh no! Not Claire again! Now 30 years old, she’s been detained by the Department of Homeland Security at the Philadelphia International Airport, en route from Istanbul to San Francisco. The reason – an intention to immigrate without the appropriate visa/permit.

Not surprisingly, she’s aghast at her detention, in denial about the circumstance she finds herself in – claiming no intention to immigrate yet conceding no intention not to immigrate.

At this point, I am done with Claire. I want her to get over herself and ‘Grow the hell up!’ 😠

 

I think Abigail Ulman’s use of internal monologue and dialogue to portray the angst and confusion felt by young women traversing the ‘no man’s land’ between adolescence and adulthood is effective and relatable. But is it enough to carry the book and keep the reader engaged?

Chagall’s Wife set the bar high. Warms-Ups cleared the bar, and Same Old Same As was a brave attempt. Each of these stories held me in a vice-like grip, then left me nursing my bruises long after the last word. There was a darkness about them that disturbed and unsettled me – a testament to some skilful writing.

But I felt the remaining stories missed the mark. Although the characters were credible, I couldn’t connect with them and the plots, while real, were quite pedestrian. I can accept a degree of disconnection and boredom when reading a work of non-fiction, but I want more from fictional narratives.

The structure of the book intrigued me, particularly the sequence of the stories and the multiple appearances of Claire. It seemed a bit random, lacking cohesion. I might have been more engaged and invested in the reading journey if the collection had begun with Kira, the youngest protagonist, used advancing age as the narrative arc and ended with Claire in detention.

Despite its shortcomings, there is merit in the way this collection highlights the vulnerability of young women – as they try to discover themselves while navigating the world and finding their place in it. There should be power and joy in that process, not the surrender and sadness reflected here.

And so it raises some important questions to ponder: how do we teach young women … to set and patrol their own boundaries? to think through the consequences of their actions? distinguish between notoriety and popularity? to take their time, eschewing too much too soon? and use their sexual currency in a positive, life-affirming and responsible way?

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