Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (A Review)


Dock Street Press

198 pgs. | $16.00


            Doll Palace (Dock Street Press, September 2014) by Sara Lippmann is a simple book, a simple collection of stories. There are no quotation marks and the feelings are equally bare. Lippmann is one of those authors who can get away with both seriousness and hilarity in the same sentence. The stories are sad and funny, heavy with lightness, stark with ferocious, bubbling paddling under the surface.
            “Whipping Post” is the kind of lead-off story I love. It has everything I’m looking for when I open a short story collection. Lippmann can set a scene quickly by writing “We both wore our hair like the girl in the Muppets band, blond and stringy and straight down the middle.” And “Somewhere, it must be written: Tell a little sister she’s hotter than cooler than more badass than her older sister and she will do anything to make it feel true.” In this story Lippmann writes about summers past, sisters, a music festival, jealousy, sex and boys. “Everyone went to her house that summer. We would peel off wet suits and give lazy hand jobs to the upperclassmen…”
            Lippmann writes beautifully when making the descriptive lists she makes so often throughout the collection. In a story called “Jew” she writes: “Books were stacked high in an array of languages, spines leather bound and faded. Throw pillows embroidered with dime-sized mirrors and hand-painted dishware, trinkets galore, from water pipes to candelabras, wooden masks, skull caps, caravans of whittled camels, there were herbal teas and aromatherapy sticks, bootlegged CDs, comic books, barrels of dried fruits, bags of nuts, a lone caftan collecting the seasons. Leather sandals hung form cords like cured meat. It was unimaginable how much fit in here.”
            And I found myself thinking the same about her lovely descriptions. It was unimaginable how much fit in here.
            Later she writes: “The hiss of his coffee press, the delicate plinking of cups on saucers, the pop and slide of the display case, a gasping for air.” And later, “Plates were cleared and replaced with glasses tangled with mint. The verdant leaves swayed in her spotted glass like seaweed.”
            I liked the story called “The Last Resort” although I cannot tell you fersure what happens in the end. I read the ending at least five times and asked my husband to read for me, as well, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. And usually when/if I can’t understand something completely, I get frustrated, but I really loved the rest of the story so it truly didn’t bother me all that much. Early on in that story she writes, “Sometimes he drove to Atlantic City to watch the girls dance atop the casino bars but cowboys hats and waxed thighs didn’t change anything. He wasn’t a gambler. It was impossible to get ahead of one’s losses.” And later in a descriptive paragraph, “The décor typical ski lodge, red brown plaid curtains and bowls filled with pine cones and matches from local restaurants. Framed posters hung on the walls in odd angles, ski trails, a family of polar bears, air pockets trapped in the glass. He showered, shaved; he masturbated to the women with reindeer sweaters discussing candle shops on mountain TV. The fridge was empty except for a carton of Arm & Hammer and a leftover box of wine.”
            Just that bit of paragraph in and of itself is a short story and I love reading those things. They are some of my favorite things to read.
            Lippmann is sublime at specifics. Like when she writes “Red sweatshirt zipped to her neck, she makes chewing gum bubbles the size of my fist, snaps them in my ear” in “Everyone Has Your Best Interests At Heart” and “I’d just spent the day playing ice cream store beneath the hulk of the city’s playground, pushing metal swings” and “Our bathroom is a mess. Plastic cups and toy boats and leaky jars of bubbles, terrycloth elephants and frogs mapping a path to an upturned stool between the his-and-her sinks in “Queen of Hearts.”
            There are stories here about clowns and knife-throwing and drugs and love. Mourning and waiting and moving on. The collection feels complete and linked. Although different, the same—like rows and rows of candy. Some are bitter chocolate and some are sour, but they’re all candy. They’re all sweet.
            I also love her opening lines. So plain, not wasting time. Like in her story “Reunion,” it starts: “Of course it is: Ryan Goldblatt in the playground, twenty years later.”
            And when she describes him, she writes: “I hear him before I see him, his voice unmistakable, Hey, prompting my turn until his face is in my face, slightly rounder, looser in the jowls, as if he’s been fed well over the years, doorstops of brie, tacos of duck fat instead of tempeh but otherwise the same: solid frame, muscular calves announcing that he has not yet given up.”
            In the next story called “Come See For Yourself” she writes: “When Anthony gets quiet his whole body stills like the lake at Young Life right before dawn. I could sit at the edge for hours and watch the dragonflies hover like Chinooks and not even skip a stone. I’m not big on praying but silence is different, silence is stretchy, more hopeful than prayer.”

My favorite stories here are:

Whipping Post
Target Girl
Everyone Has Your Best Interests At Heart
Come See For Yourself
Human Interest

            Doll Palace is a solid collection. The length of the stories vary, which I love, and Lippmann succeeds in crafting stories that are both as sneakily complicated and wonderfully plain as everyday life.

Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection is called EVERY KISS A WAR (Mojave River Press, 2014). She and her husband run a literary magazine called WhiskeyPaper. Find more @


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