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  • Narcissistic Men and Fabulist Ladies
  • Melanie Page (bio)
Suspended Heart. Heather Fowler. Aqueous Books. 322 pages; paper, $14.00.

Heather Fowler's debut collection, Suspended Heart—surreal, colorful—surprises immediately. Fowler synthesizes the message of her collection in the dedication: "For all the beautiful women, inside and out, who have struggled for life in the name of love. My best, most healing magic to you always." In these stories, men are those who hurt women, despite the woman's best efforts to be beautiful and true to capture/keep him. The message: men will hurt a woman, even if she is the epitome of what he wants. The female might overcome through adaptation. The title story is first, offering "a girl" who doesn't realize her heart has fallen out of her chest at the jewelry counter in the mall. Her happiness exceeds her loss, and she describes, "What a calm life I now have! Oh, how strange! Some say there's a beating heart on the other side of the mall that tells fortunes for loves, but I simply do not care! It's good to be free of romantic concerns. I do not need a lover! This is the best period of my entire life. I am so happy alone." The delicate tone and exclamation points blur the distinction between hurt and humor. Could it be sarcasm, or does the author want readers to know a life of emotional self-sufficiency? The emphasis is on the last two sentences, where the girl tries exceedingly to communicate that she is happy solo. But she doesn't convince, and the result serves as a warning to the women in the stories after the girl's: love hurts, and it will find you.

In "Bloom in Any Season," a woman whose body grows plant life changes with the seasons: "Then winter came, and my flowers died. I tried to prolong their life, whispering to my skin, 'Please. Please...' But they would not stay. The arm and leg vines persisted, but across my body, brown brambles, the texture of branches, a wood like rasp, proliferated. 'You are too hard. You scratch now,' he would say...." When she flourishes, literally, the man seeks her attention, but in harsh seasons, he abandons his flower, so she experiences the broken heart every year. She tries to learn, to change, but the idea is that when women become difficult, different, they are cast aside for something sweeter. The theme is familiar—we experience it in Bridget Jones's Diary (1998) quite noticeably—but Fowler makes no sweet promises. While Helen Fielding guarantees a better boyfriend, Fowler makes her character deal alone, crushing as it may be.

In a more futuristic story, a human man who cares for a beautiful female robot powers her down just before he dies so that she may not seek another (male) caretaker. He dies happy knowing "we had found joy in the other's company, and that, like an old human couple might have, Siola and I died in close succession.... But more importantly I could feel, in the instant I passed from this dark place, that, in lieu of me, for her, there'd be no other." Much like the crushed flowers, the dying man destroys the beautiful robot's chance at a future, knowing that her primary function is to seek a caretaker. Despite understanding Siola is mechanical, the man's final lines are narcissistic, with dramatic pauses that emphasize each word's weight.

When women do fight back, it is through unconventional, and sometimes subconscious, means. Ginger, the down-and-out girl stuck in a family of fanatics and idiots, grows a protective layer of razor blades on her skin, a manifestation of the things she wants to say to her harassers, but doesn't. Fowler writes, "She went home and studied herself in the bathroom mirror. She noted with concentration how the metallic pieces now extended from her flesh by a good three-quarters of an inch. They covered her breasts and pubic region, almost like some kind of armor that stretched from her neck to her toes. 'I'm so sexy!' she...


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