May 2005

Shawna Flavell


Waiting for Elvis by Toni Graham

I don’t like chick lit. A woman trying to make a statement about her sex by creating a character with an I-don’t-need-a-man-to-make-me-happy attitude, or one trying to showcase femininity and the vulnerability that comes with it doesn’t keep me interested. Usually, it’s enough to make me put a book back on the shelf. In her second short story collection, Waiting for Elvis, Toni Graham uses her character crafting skills to prove that women can be a bit of both. She convinces readers that they can be vulnerable and naïve, as well as independent and headstrong. She also convinced me not to judge a book by its back cover.

Jane, a psychotherapist-turned-dog-walker-turned-psychotherapist, is the character you grow to love through the stories she inhabits. She is unsure of herself, quitting her job as a psychotherapist because she often feels more like a patient than a doctor, only to return. She is self-conscious, often bordering on vain, about her expanding waistline and the “secretary spread” of her backside. At times it gets a bit pathetic the way she longs for a lover, yet still obsesses over her deceased boyfriend Lars. She lives on her own, is self-employed, and even packs up everything to move from the town she grew up in to a place where she knows nobody. It is this mix of character traits that make Jane seem like a complete human instead of a stereotype, and they are the reason to keep turning the page.

Drawing you in with her character, Graham keeps you intertwined in Jane’s life, using her personality to create humorous yet creepy scenarios. Jane’s constant paranoia and her insecurities are used as a backdrop for situations, instead of the only focus of them. “Ultrasaurus” has her calling 911 because she believes a man who called to return her bank checks is breaking into her apartment instead. “In the Book of Blue Dogs” she is startled from a heavy cry as the TV turns on because the Clapper picked up the weeping. This ability gives the work a subtly that peaks the reader’s curiosity and at one moment will have you laughing to yourself and at others overcome with a nervous knot in the pit of your stomach.

But, Graham makes you wait for the full impact of her craftsmanship. Her skills as an author don’t really shine until a few stories in. Starting out, she seems unsure about her character, as well as her reader’s ability to retain information story to story. In “Kilter,” the first story of the collection, Jane seems like a different person, with a different job and an outlook on life that borders on self-pity. There isn’t much of the self-determined female Jane is developed into later. And if the self-absorbed woman isn’t enough to make you want to put down the book, then maybe the thought that you are being talked down to will. Information is reiterated every few pages and it seems she doesn’t trust you to remember what she has to say.

Redundancy is let up as the book continues and eventually fades into the back, and you are able to focus on the craftsmanship of Graham as a writer. Jane develops into a character drawn as someone that could easily be your wife, mother, or sister. The situations she’s placed in are those that every woman can relate to in some aspect or another. She is neither the feminist stereotype, nor the dependent chick lit stereotype. She is a hybrid of both and reading these stories will cause a smile to spread across your face as you are reminded of the dynamic, at times slightly crazy, idiosyncrasies of the female species.

Waiting for Elvis by Toni Graham
Leapfrog Press
ISBN: 0972898441
224 Pages