Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, a stylish and perplexing short story collection which stars all-female protagonists and the most surreal settings. 

Here’s a fact for you: When not in use, a regular uterus is about 7.6cm long, 4.5cm wide and about 3cm thick. Approximately the size of a pear (and it also looks like one), if you need a visual reference. Its existence inside the human body is meant to, among other functions, be a safe site for menstruation and to provide protection and support for fetuses to grow. At its largest, during a woman’s third trimester, it can grow to be the size of a watermelon. Freaky, right? Then again, many things about the female body can be bizarre or, at the very least, hard to understand.

Yet, after reading Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, one may question whether that’s really the case – whether a woman’s womb, or a woman’s body, is truly so perplexing, in the end. Perhaps it’s simply been under-studied, over-mystified and too often vilified by medicine, science, religion, the media and popular culture. One wonders if “madwomen” are ever truly mad.

Machado is no stranger to delving into women’s stories. Her highly acclaimed 2019 memoir In the Dreamhouse deals with her very own experience in an abusive same-sex relationship, and she has long been known in the literary world as a spokesperson for women’s rights and causes. It’s not rare to find her essays, columns and criticism in high-calibre publications such as The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue. On that account, it’s safe to say that if you’re looking for a writer who truly, deeply knows how to tell a woman’s tale, Machado is one of the great contemporaries of our time.

And what better place to start than with Her Body and Other Parties. A short story collection like no other (except, perhaps, for its reminiscence in style and strangeness to Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds), in it Machado tackles the reality of women in our contemporary world, along with the microaggressions and outright violence that are so often inflicted upon their bodies.

Although, to call it a short story collection doesn’t quite suffice. Out of the eight final stories featured in the book, five were originally published in other publications, while three were written specifically for the volume. Yet regardless of its heterogeneous origin, the tales blend into a narrative that’s hard for any reader to abandon.

It’s a strange thing, this book: not quite science fiction, not quite horror or nonfiction either, Machado grabs elements here and there from different genres and mixes them together to craft her very own, particular thing. A strange, slightly abrupt and wonderful thing. It’s deeply psychological, often creepy and disturbing – but you’ll never want to put it down. If there’s one thing we can tell you, it’s this: This book won’t leave you, perhaps ever.

You might be wondering what exactly makes Machado’s tales so disquieting, and the truth is… it’s the truth itself. That unspoken and extremely violent truth, which she weaves into her fiction with absolute mastery, and which creeps silently behind every carefully selected word. You’ll see what we mean as you plunge into “The Husband Stitch”, the book’s opening story, a particularly heinous (read: incredibly well-written, intriguing and disarming) tale about a woman who tries to exert agency over her own body and choices, and who fails dismally. It’s also a story about daily microaggressions and how they can slowly but steadily break someone down. It’s also, like much of Machado’s writing, about the power dynamics between men and women. This time around, the setting is what is actually a seemingly loving relationship – which of course makes the whole thing even more repugnant. Because the truth is, even those who love you can hurt you.

Borders in this book, much like in life, are blurred, confusing and hard to recognise. Machado knows that, and she does a stellar job at showing the brutal complexities within. By the time you reach “Difficult at Parties”, the closing chapter about an assault victim who tries to get back to her everyday sexual and sentimental life by watching pornography, but who is challenged by the internal monologues of the people in the videos, you’ll understand that, even if surreal, this book is as real as it gets. We’ll give it to Machado, her world-building skills are extraordinary.

Is this a feminist book? Most definitely. No one would dare say otherwise. Does that mean men won’t like it? Not at all. If anything, any man with an open mind will find Machado’s writing revealing – an invitation to review internalised behaviours and convictions. The women in this book are not your average Jane, they’re madwomen who are mad only because of the world they inhabit. A world which, while fictitious, is of course our very own. A world which they each try to shape, but which inevitably shapes them. Then again, it makes one wonder if such women are not, in reality, any woman. The book offers ample food for thought, and that won’t escape anyone, man or woman, who reads it.

Every single one of Machado’s female protagonists is an outright challenge to traditional societal notions of femininity, to what are now dated female archetypes, to propriety and decorum and to what is usually expected from women, and that makes this book a delight. Whether they’re trying to survive on their own or simply making an inventory of their sexual partners, her women are constantly challenging the way each of their respective worlds work. Whether that world is a thrilling lakeside writer’s retreat in “The Resident”, an apocalyptic post-pandemic society like in “Inventory”, a life of dead-end jobs and student loans in “Real Women Have Bodies”, or even the experiences of a reluctant first-time mother in “Mothers”, readers will always find something to explore or question in her tales and Hill House-reminiscent settings.

But readers will find that they challenge themselves, too, with every turn of the page. A book like this has the power to spark real-life conversations regarding body autonomy, motherhood and sexuality. This is a book that prompts feelings to arise, and not particularly pleasing ones.

Thematically, what excels the most is Machado’s exploration of desire and how it reveals itself in a woman’s (particularly, a queer woman’s) life, what we make homes out of, and what we accept as ‘normal’ in the course of sentimental relationships. This is Machado’s open invitation to her readers to defamiliarise themselves with everything they know to be true.

And that’s precisely what we want you to do when you pick up this book. Perhaps the best way to understand our reality is to interrupt it, and Her Body and Other Parties is the perfect book to achieve just that. Machado’s writing is one of protest and creative freedom, and her wit and invention make this a joy to read and analyse. Much like the stellar endings in each of the tales featured, this book deserves its own – and what better way to grant it one than by sharing it?

Explore Further: What To Read & Watch

​​If Machado’s fantasy world leaves you wanting more after you turn the last page, head to your closest library, digital or physical, and pick up a copy of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. You can also hear Machado talk about her latest book, In the Dreamhouse, in ep. 95 of The Granta Podcast.

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