Stories We Know By Heart

Helen Ellis pens an irreverent, witty collection of essays about her life — and ours

Helen Ellis is a 54-year-old writer with no kids, no colleagues, no car, living in a New York City apartment with a doorman.

And yet. She finds a way to reach those of us — especially us Gen X female fans — whose lives can seem nothing like hers.

Turns out, we have plenty in common.

We roll over in bed alongside her, exasperated that our husbands are keeping us awake with their unrelenting snoring. We remember with her our pre-teen slumber parties, complete with Ouija boards and Magic 8 Balls and prank phone calls. We smile — it’s a comfort smile — when she compels us to Google the theme song to The Rockford Files.

Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge is the third collection of personal essays Ellis has published since her short story collection, American Housewife, took the world by storm in 2016. In each book we delight in her unflinching observations, irreverent wit, and impulse to air the laundry that so many Millennials curate out of existence on their Instagram accounts.

When we Ellis aficionados finish one book of essays, we pine for the next.

Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessional from a Happy Marriage  is worth the wait.

These snippets of Ellis’s life are rooted in New York City, in the shadow of a deadly pandemic that drags on for years. But Ellis doesn’t really go there.

Sure, she takes up the unlikely hobby of raising house plants. And yes, she makes the most of staying in by learning to have amazing sex (again) with the same guy she’s been kissing for 28 years. She looks death squarely in the face. “I told my husband, ‘I don’t want a funeral, just burn me up,’” she writes in the essay, “Permanent Vacation Plans.”

Mostly, though, Ellis is the storyteller we have come to know and love, delivering tales of domesticity as if readers were on the other side of a martini glass at a swank steakhouse. We can’t wait to hear how this rambling yarn will wind its way to conclusion.

She writes of how she and her husband were each other’s “last first kiss” and how satisfying it has been to have shared tens of thousands of kisses since then. “These kisses add up. We have accumulated kisses. When times get tough, we have kisses to fall back on.”

In my favorite essay, “Teacher’s Pet,” Ellis tackles judgment, insecurity, self-care. A friend berated her for festooning her Lilly Pulitzer agenda with vintage stickers during the depths of the pandemic. In the end, Ellis rejects the snarky comment. “My stickers helped me cope. They give me hope.”

If there aren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments in this collection, there are still those crackling lines:

“ I gasped the kind of gasp that leaves your face looking like a corn hole board,” she writes.

“Mama looked like she’d taken up breakdancing without a cardboard box,” she captures.

“I want to wear suits so powerful they blow fuses like two hair dryers in one outlet,” she pronounces.

Your time spent with Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge will release endorphins — and make you think a little differently about your life.

To borrow one of Ellis’s favorite words, Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge is “enjoyable,” start to finish.

“Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage” will be published in June by Doubleday, an imprint of Penguin Random House. You can pre-order it here.