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“What if we’re all ‘underground women’?”: Intern Book Club (July)

This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts detailing the discussion of the marketing intern book club started this summer. This month we read Underground Women, a collection of short stories by Jesse Lee Kercheval. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science; Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies; and Julia Knecht, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and digital studies. 

Alexis most enjoyed the titular story, “Underground Women,” though she was originally hesitant about it. The snapshot moments that make up the story are disorienting at first. However, as Alexis took the time to reflect on the story of a young photographer apprenticing under a hotelier, it became clear these disorienting moments were intentional. Kercheval weaves together the narrative and the structure to allow the reader to feel closer to the shock, fatigue, and other emotions present in the characters in the small fragments the reader sees. Like a photograph, the moments that make up the story are rich despite only being able to capture a moment. There is an understanding between reader and author that these are only moments. The complexity of Kercheval’s writing⁠—here and throughout the collection⁠—is her ability to present the lives of women as they are and as they are ignored. Overall, the story captured Alexis’ attention because of how strong Kercheval’s writing is while expounding on the idea of the hidden moments of women engaging with other women.

Morgan enjoyed “A Story Set In Germany,” the third story featured in the book. This one focuses on a young woman telling the readers about her experience in Germany, but the twist is that she tells it twice—the first “how I wish it to be” and the second where she gives us the story as it actually happened. She details her time in the picturesque German mountains, where she stays with a parental couple in their farmhouse and builds a friendship with another of their guests. After a happy ending, the narrator goes on, taking quotes from what has just been told and revealing the real story behind them, one that is less than perfect. The way Kercheval played with structure to tell this story adds to the reader’s experience, and makes the piece a unique addition to this collection.

Julia loved “Civil Service,” a story about a young woman named Janet Nedermacher starting her career as a government bureaucrat in the Check Claims Division. Janet is intelligent, ambitious, and, in many ways, ruthless. Julia appreciated the way this story creates complex female characters, who expand beyond their first impressions as Janet learns more about the new office she is working in and learns more about her place in it. While the setting and plot of the story are fairly mundane, Kercheval’s attention to detail and careful consideration of the roles and internal struggles of the various characters makes “Civil Service” feel real and important.

The first half of the stories are rooted in realism, showing complex women with a variety of traits. The second half is told from primarily male perspectives, portraying women abstractly in more surrealist situations. Many of the stories lack clean conclusions, much like the reality underground women face. Kercheval resists the impulse to fulfill the fantasy of a happy ending where realistically there would not be one. Instead, she shows the ongoing conflict many women experience and forces the reader to sit in that conflict, even after they have stopped reading. 

Kercheval’s writing is strongest when she explores female perspective through various narrative styles and structures. For instance, the title story is written in snapshots, each set of prose directly tied to a picture the narrator took. “A Story Set In Germany” is divided between two realities: one in which the narrator describes their time in Germany as they wish it would have been, and another where they acknowledge the uncomfortable reality behind the fairytale. By varying the structures that she writes with, Kercheval shows that each of her narrators’ perspectives are unique; they are different people who see things differently, even if they are all ‘underground women.’

Overall, we enjoyed reading this book, and would highly recommend it to readers interested in exploring narrative structures and unique perspectives. This collection of short stories is enjoyable to read casually, but readers will probably gain the most from structured discussion where you can more fully dive into the complex themes Kercheval sets out.