Sima's Undergarments for Women
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Whether they're looking for demi-cup bras or full-body girdles, for more than thirty years women of all ages have come to Sima Goldner's shop. Tucked away in a basement deep in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park, New York, the tiny store is a community treasure-a place to congregate, commiserate, and buy new lingerie. With her sharp and experienced eye, Sima can size up a woman in an instant, and with a stitch, some underwire, and a few words of encouragement, her customers leave the shop feeling good about their bodies and themselves. But as much as she can help other women, Sima can't seem to help herself. Childless and filled with regret, stuck in a lonely, bitter marriage, Sima's store is her entire world. And then, suddenly, Timna walks in.
Ilana Stanger-Ross's debut novel Sima's Undergarments for Women tells the story of Sima's infatuation with the young and exquisitely beautiful Timna-a platonic and peculiar love that blurs the lines between maternal affection, adoration, and friendship. Recently arrived from Israel, Timna stumbles into Sima's shop in the hope of employment; when Sima hires her as a seamstress, their relationship blossoms. In Timna, Stanger-Ross has created an exotic, enigmatic foil to Sima's pessimism and self-doubt. Where Sima is hesitant, Timna is bold, and soon Sima is living vicariously through her adventurous young friend. While she wants to be like Timna, she also wants to keep Timna from becoming like her, and Sima's desire to protect her brings their relationship to a breaking point.
A blend of rueful humor and poignant observations, Sima's Undergarments for Women is written in the intimate, casual tones women use when whispering secrets, confiding worries, and sharing wisdom-the voice of generations of mothers, daughters, and friends. Sima is a flawed but honest heroine, and her struggles, sacrifices, and disappointments are as touching as her efforts to overcome them. As Sima watches two seemingly perfect relationships fall apart, the years of bitterness and resentment that have clouded her love for her husband begin to melt away. Finally, she is able to reveal a secret to her husband that sheds new light on their marriage and opens up the possibility of rekindling their love.
Sima's Undergarments for Women is an astutely observed chronicle of the strength and resilience of women; the complicated, multifaceted nature of female friendship; and of the joys, regrets, and forgiveness that constitute a marriage. Author Ilana Stanger-Ross has created a world that envelopes and embraces the reader, taking her on the search for the perfect relationship, the perfect body, and the perfect bra.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ilana Stanger-Ross earned a bachelor's degree from Barnard College and an MFA from Temple University in Philadelphia. Her writing has been published in numerous venues such as The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and she has won several grants and prizes including a Timothy Findley Fellowship. Currently a midwifery student at the University of British Columbia, Stanger-Ross lives with her husband and children in Victoria, British Columbia.
A CONVERSATION WITH ILANA STANGER-ROSS Q. Why did you decide to set the story in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood? Because of her mild religious views and the history of her shop, Sima is both an outsider and an insider. How does this affect her personality?
Q. Why did you decide to set the story in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood? Because of her mild religious views and the history of her shop, Sima is both an outsider and an insider. How does this affect her personality?
I first chose the setting simply because it was familiar to me: my mother grew up in Boro Park and took me to basement shops all the time, so to write that kind of store I knew I had to write Boro Park. That said, as I became more involved with Sima as a character, I realized how her experience as a secular Jew in Boro Park paralleled her life experience. On the one hand her store is a neighborhood fixture; on the other hand, as a nonobservant Jew she simply doesn't fit in. Her store is a mandatory stop for any women planning celebrations, yet she denies herself celebration. She takes real satisfaction in helping women achieve greater comfort with their bodies, but hasn't participated in a sexual relationship in years. So what started as a simple choice ended up having more meaning that I'd anticipated.
Q. Where did you grow up? Did you use any of your own childhood experiences in writing Sima's Undergarments for Women? Do you return to Brooklyn often?
I grew up in Flatbush, which is more or less in the center of Brooklyn. My mother grew up in Boro Park, and I know that neighborhood through her. I didn't draw heavily on my own experiences in that I actually have little in common with Sima or Timna; at the same time, experiences I've had and stories I've heard are all over the novel, though rarely in any kind of recognizable form. I also had a bit of fun inserting real neighborhood characters into the novel: Eddie the grocer, for instance. I changed the name & location of his shop for the novel, but there really is an Eddie out there, and if you can find him he really will help you find the best pomelos.
Q. Sima feels marked by her lack of children. Do you believe that society sees motherhood as intrinsically connected to female identity? Are certain communities, religions, or generations more likely to feel this way?
The simple answer is: yes, and yes. I don't think women have to be mothers, and yet I'm also not sure what it would mean to try to separate female identity from motherhood. As for community/religion/generation: absolutely there are differences. Certainly among ultra-Orthodox Jews, as in other religiously observant communities, the expectation is that women will marry early and have many children. And yet I'm not aware of a community out there that doesn't place value on a woman's ability to bear children, explicitly or implicitly. In the writings of women struggling with infertility one theme that comes up again and again is a sense of betrayal by one's own body, a sense that in failing to become pregnant, one is failing as a woman.
Q. You're currently a midwifery student at the University of British Columbia. Do you see any connection between your novel and your work with women and childbirth?
I started writing Sima years before I decided to become a midwife, and you can see in it-or I can see in it-my interest in women's health and feminism and medicine. So there's that. Writing a novel also taught me patience, which has been a boon in my own experience working with laboring women. It's also the case that when clients ask me about nursing bras-usually an off-hand, end-of-appointment kind of question-they end up getting a real lecture. They always seem a bit surprised as to how much I have to say on the topic, but little do they know I'm channeling Sima.
Q. Sima has a very accepting attitude toward other women's physical and emotional flaws. Why can't she approach her own life in this forgiving manner? Do you believe a lot of women suffer from this problem?
I think we all do this-what we forgive in others we don't necessarily forgive in ourselves. It's a good question as to why. I think Sima has a hard time forgiving herself in part because she submerges her anger in the daily routines of her life. Eventually she comes to see her own disappointment as inevitable and, after a time, natural. Timna's arrival forces Sima to consider her own thwarted desire. She confronts the routine dysfunction of her life and rediscovers possibilities that she has ignored for decades. Her relationship with Timna, itself problematic in a variety of ways, affords Sima the opportunity to forgive herself, at least a little.
Q. Why did you decide to set the novel in a lingerie shop? What does that type of clothing signify to you?
As with my decision to set the novel in Orthodox Boro Park, I didn't so much analyze the meaning of lingerie when I began so much as to think, hmm, that's a good setting for a novel. I did like the idea of the dressing-room curtain: a private space in which women reveal themselves literally as well as figuratively. During a radio interview I gave after publication the station host commented that just as lingerie is hidden beneath our clothing, much of the novel is about what we hide from others and ourselves, and what that does to us. When she said that I thought, yes, exactly. But it took someone else to point it out to me.
Q. Timna is a fascinating character and such a powerful force in Sima's life. Why did you decide to keep the details of Timna's life outside Sima's shop a mystery?
Well, it was a formal choice: the point of view is entirely Sima's, so to allow the reader to see aspects of Timna's life that Sima couldn't herself see would contradict that. The decision to only allow Sima's point of view came from this being a very internal, psychological kind of novel. So much of it takes place in one room, underground, and most of the action is very quiet. The drama comes from what is or isn't said more than it does from any major events. And I suppose that I made those choices because, to my mind, a close exploration of one character's thoughts and feelings can provide incredible depth and breadth and complexity. That said, I do plan on playing with multiple points of view in my next novel, since that would be a new challenge for me.
Q. Sima and Timna have a very complex relationship, particularly with regard to Sima's feelings about Timna's beauty. How would you categorize this aspect of their relationship? Do you think it's common for women to have that kind of appreciation for another woman's beauty or sex appeal?
I was interested in exploring desire, which can be a pretty messy emotion. Sima does admire Timna. I think women evaluate each other all the time, either with admiration or criticism. But she also desires her. In part Sima wants Timna to be the daughter she never had, and in part Sima wants to be Timna herself, to have the beauty and confidence that evaded her in her own youth. And in part Sima desires Timna physically, in that she feels attracted to Timna. That's not an aspect of her relationship that Sima would openly acknowledge, but it is part of what compels her to keep Timna close.
Q. What responses have you had from readers? Do you see any difference in reactions between older and younger readers? Do men respond to the book differently than women do?
I've been really lucky to tour around to several cities and meet enthusiastic readers, and I've also had some wonderful e-mails from readers who found Sima on their own. I think the biggest division I've been aware of in terms of reader reactions isn't based on sex or age or location but simply what they thought about Sima herself. Some readers have admitted to me that they absolutely hated Sima. They tell me she's just terrible: unforgiving, meddling, angry. Others have said, "she's so real." Those who recognize her tend to love her, despite her many faults.
Q. What prompted you to write the novel and how long did it take? What is your next project?
It's difficult, looking back, to remember and reflect on what shaped the novel. It took years and years of writing-seven in total, though that was also seven years juggling jobs and children and school, so certainly I wasn't always writing full-time, or even part-time. To the extent that I began Sima while making my own choices about marriage and children, it reflects my fears and thoughts about those decisions. It's also a novel about a place and a culture that I have left behind and yet continues to profoundly shape me. So I think all of these things were in me and came out in the novel. At the same time, and more directly, I was prompted by an engaged and challenging professor at Temple University, and by the people who supported the project in the years that followed.
These days I'm very busy as a midwifery student and a mother, but there is another piece of fiction taking shape. It's set very far from Brooklyn, on islands off the west coast of Canada. As I mentioned earlier, this novel has a larger cast of characters, but, like Sima, it continues to reflect my interests in the choices we make around relationships, parenting, and self-fulfillment.
- Beyond undergarments, what does Sima's shop provide her community? What does it provide her? Is she aware of this?
- For thirty-five years, Sima's seen a range of women's shapes and sizes in her store and because of this, she is far more accepting of women's varied body types. Do you think women have more body anxiety than men? Why? Do you have any fears or concerns about your own body image? If so, how do you confront them?
- Sima believes that good-fitting bras are the foundation of a good outfit. What item of clothing do you think is indispensable? What item do you think is impossible to find in a perfect fit?
- Not having children created a deep rift in Sima and Lev's relationship. Did you feel any sympathy for either of them? If so, who and why? Is Sima and Lev's marriage worth saving?
- Sima, Timna, Lev, and Connie all suffer romantic disappointments. In what ways are their heartaches similar? How do they cope?
- Should Sima have revealed Art's secret to Connie? What would you have done if you were in her position?
- Compare Sima's relationship with Connie and her relationship with Timna. How do these friendships develop over the course of the novel?
- Of all of Sima's worries about Timna-heartbreak, infidelity, pregnancy-which, if any, do you believe were founded?
- Why did Sima keep her secret from Lev for such a long time? Should she have told him sooner? If she did, how do you think he would have reacted?
- What do Timna and Sima learn from each other? What is Timna's greatest strength? What is Sima's? Do you have a friend who inspires or teaches you?