"Interesting Women," Reviewed by Ava Lundell
Andrea Lee’s Interesting Women is a collection of engaging and dynamic short stories depicting the lives of Black expatriate women. Lee’s ability to draw from her own experiences amplifies the collection’s vividness and intensity. Born in Philadelphia to a middle-class Black family, Lee attended Harvard University. Following graduation, Lee lived in Russia for a year and eventually settled in Torino, Italy. Images of Lee’s life flicker throughout her stories, from the Philadelphia setting in “Un Petit d’un Petit,” to the Harvard reference in “The Pulpit,” to the depiction of Italian life in “Full Moon over Milan.” Lee exhibits a habit of drawing upon her own life experience as a Black American living abroad to add depth to her writing. For example, Lee’s first book, the National Book Award-nominated memoir Russian Journal (published in 1981), was inspired by the diary she kept while living in Russia. Lee’s use of her own life as inspiration for her stories has spanned her extensive writing career and is evident in Interesting Women, adding depth and nuance to her characters and their experiences.
Originally published by Random House in 2002, Interesting Women is re-entering the public eye due to Scribner’s publication of the short story collection following the March 2021 release of Lee’s new novel Red Island House. Despite its original publication almost twenty years ago, Lee’s collection of short stories is arguably even more relevant to our contemporary society than when the collection was first released. The re-release of Interesting Women comes at a time of increasing public attention on the underlying struggles of gender, class, and race that Lee’s work has been discussing for some time now. Lee’s collection is a dynamic aspect of this conversation, portraying the lives of “interesting women” amidst sexual, class, and racial tensions.
In terms of sexual and class considerations, Lee depicts a woman named Ariel, the wife of a wealthy Italian man, in the opening short story of the collection, “The Birthday Present.” Ariel lives surrounded by parvenus and decadent nouveau riche interiors. Ariel decides to gift her husband Milan's most renowned call girl for his birthday present. Lee expertly and quietly integrates meaningful insights into this shocking plot, such as Ariel’s observation that her opinions and thoughts remain unsaid. Lee continues to explore spaces of overwhelming wealth and sexual tensions, such as in the collection’s concluding story, “The Prior’s Room.” Anna Meehan--the protagonist--comes from a family with the means to send her to Switzerland for the summer to improve her French, and during her trip she has a romantic tryst in a beautiful, luxurious hotel on Lake Annecy. Similarly, in the collection’s title story, a mother stays at an expensive beachside resort with her daughter in Thailand. The mother develops a fascination with Silver--another wealthy woman looking for adventure. The narrative features multiple generations of women, building on the story’s opening inquiry as to whether we will ever be without interesting women. I would argue we have never been free of such women--and we never will be. Rather, we are surrounded by “interesting women” who we are only now just beginning to recognize as extraordinarily dynamic and beautifully complex.
Lee’s stories brim with glamor and often leave conclusions up to the reader. On the surface, the question of what makes an “interesting woman” interesting seems wrapped up with wealth and luxury. However, throughout the collection, Lee weaves reflections on race and other social issues into her plots that nuance the identities and stories of all the protagonists. For example, in the play-formatted short story “The Golden Chariot,” the Harmons, a Black family from Philadelphia, journey across the United States in a Rambler Classic during the summer of 1962. They describe their journey as one that reflected the tenuous status of their citizenship, twisted by feeling like visitors on land that they knew they had the right to claim. Notably, Lee expertly creates a connection between the remoteness felt by her expatriate protagonists and the isolation and lack of identity felt by Black Americans.
Interesting Women subtly and delicately weaves the issues of gender, class, and race into the portrayal of its protagonists. Ultimately, despite commonality, each woman is unique with a distinct story, whether that be dancing with a stranger in a restaurant on the Bay Islands of Honduras, falling for a wealthy older man living in Scotland, or traveling around Thailand with a mysterious woman, thereby highlighting the complexity and uniqueness of the female experience.
Ava Lundell is a junior at Villanova University majoring in English and minoring in Public Administration and History. After graduation, she will enter the field of international education policy with a focus on female empowerment in low and middle-income countries.