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Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage

This week, Don reviews “Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge” by Helen Ellis.

After a truly wonderful comic novel “Eating the Cheshire Cat,” set in Tuscaloosa, in sorority houses and even on the football field, Helen Ellis published “American Housewife,” a volume of stories—presumably fictional, and also very funny. In one piece, she explains to a readership that is largely north of D. C. that “she’s a character” means drunk, “she has a good time” means slut, “Is this too dressy?” means “I look fabulous, and it would be in your best interest to tell me so.”

Her biting and sometimes saucy humor carried over, then, into two volumes of personal essays, essentially memoir: “Southern Lady Code” and “Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light.” Many of the pieces in “Southern Lady Code” benefit from Ellis’ takes on what it is like to live in Manhattan, in an apartment, after having grown up in Alabama. The Southerner in the North and Fish out of Water are very reliable comedic patterns, and she sees New York life with a clearer eye than a native. “Bring Your Baggage” continues her life story, now with slightly older women friends who are dealing with plastic surgery, mammograms and menopause. All of this seems intimate, personal.

This new volume, subtitled “Intimate Confessions,” is more memoir than essays, is even more personal, and is narrow in scope since Ellis and her husband during the New York City Covid lockdown were, like all the rest of us, forced to be together, for months, at home, almost all the time. The first chapter is about her husband’s snoring. All husbands snore. She and her girlfriends discuss the various remedies for this: kick the husband, get earplugs, buy a white noise machine, nasal strips, finally, CPAP machines. This is a real problem but not intrinsically funny.

One chapter is in the form of instructions to the cat sitter. These cats—two—are fussier eaters than French royalty and delicate as Hapsburgs. There are bags of dry food, food in cans, food in wet pouches. Use a clean dish at each feeding, or the orange cat will get “chin acne,” and the old one will barf. “Married with Plants” is, of course, about house plants. Ellis used to have a “black thumb.” Now, however, she has 27 flourishing plants. Her friend upon entering says “It’s a jungle in here.” We also learn about her antique telephones and her eclectic art collecting, which stretches the definition of art, pretty hard, but it is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.

This is a happy marriage and, as Tolstoy put it in “Anna Karenina,” all happy families are alike. Well, maybe they used to be, but they aren’t any more. Ellis and her girlfriends discuss their married intimate lives. One friend reports that, with her 50-year-old husband it’s not great, but “Cold pizza is still pizza.” Ellis’ husband, three months into lockdown, got a prescription for Viagra. “Why not?” Ellis writes. “What else were we going to do?” Tolstoy did not foresee this development.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.