A Manual for Cleaning Women
is a collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin. Published in 2016 by Picador Paperback, Berlin’s short fiction presents a cast of female characters of different ages and backgrounds. From pregnant teenagers to friendless children and unmarried middle-aged women, each story offers a different perspective on life’s struggles. Most of Berlin’s characters are alcoholics, and many could even be the same woman at various stages of her life. Berlin leaves her characters raw and exposed, forcing her readers to engage with some of the more brutal aspects of human nature.
Most of the stories in the collection are told by a first-person narrator; what links them together is the shared sensibility, the way that all of the narratives flow seemingly through the same consciousness. Berlin often deals with the faculties of the human body, not shying away from the reality of vomit, blood, and even hemorrhoids.
In the opening story of the collection, Angel’s Laundromat
, a woman visits a Laundromat across town. She notices the lack of cleanliness, the wide array of people who visit the same place, the lack of sameness that is so contrasting with her own suburban neighborhood. She likes how it makes her feel as though she is back in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York. In the process of visiting the Laundromat regularly, she comes to know some of the clientele. Through her masterful writing, Berlin draws us into this world, forcing us to care about these seemingly inconsequential encounters.
In Dr. H.A. Moynihan
, a young girl is expelled from school after striking a nun, a reference to another story in the collection. As punishment, she is forced to spend her summer working in her grandfather’s dental office. Things take a turn for the strange when her grandfather recruits her to help him fit his dentures, but first, she must pull out all of his teeth. This is demonstrative of Berlin’s signature style, as she delves into grotesque detail surrounding the extractions.
In Stars and Saints
, the female protagonist expresses how she constantly feels that she makes the wrong impression on the people around her. She reflects on her childhood and how she never quite fit in at her Catholic school because she was raised Protestant but also because of physical differences that separate her from the other girls.
In the title story, A Manual for Cleaning Women,
a young woman works as a cleaning lady, collecting sleeping pills from the clients whose homes she cleans. In her line of work, she is privy to the inner workings of people’s family dynamics. As she watches those around her unraveling, she plots to end her own suffering by eventually consuming all of her collected pills.My Jockey
is one of the shortest stories in the collection. At fewer than two pages in length, it reads almost like a prose poem. In this story, a nurse who works in the emergency room helps a young Mexican jockey. She describes the act of undressing him as a feeling of performing an elaborate ritual, comparing his body to an Aztec god.El Tim
once again refers to nuns and religious education, a recurrent theme of the collection. A nun and Spanish teacher struggles to assert her authority over a particularly difficult student.Her First Detox
paints the tragic portrait of a middle-class mother and teacher who also happens to be an alcoholic. The story examines how she attempts to maintain the façade of easy suburban life, desperately trying to hide her addiction from those around her.
In Phantom Pain
, a woman becomes her elderly father’s caretaker, forcing her to re-examine their complicated relationship as their role reversal becomes increasingly evident. The entire story is eclipsed by the fact that the woman knows her father killed her mother years ago but ultimately decides to be there for him in his time of need.Tiger Bites
tells the story of a woman who returns home for a family reunion in the wake of her divorce. Unbeknownst to her family, it was her husband who left her, pregnant and destitute, to pursue his artistic ambition. Through beautifully crafted prose, Berlin explores how the fallout of the divorce affects this woman’s life, the judgment she experiences as a result, and how, in the midst of it all, she longs for a love that is true.
Berlin’s prose is sparse and trots along at a steady pace. She does not rush to tell these stories but allows them to unravel before us, revealing themselves in their own time. Berlin is an expert at depicting the intricacies of the human condition, specifically those experienced by women, examining the oft-overlooked aspects of womanhood that make all of her characters into powerful but tragic figures.