Acne is a metaphor in Sherman’s delicate first collection. Her female characters come of age self-consciously. The mood is that of someone diligently polishing porcelain plates only to discover that the faded image was never bright to start with.
In the title story, wallflower Sarah “scouts the day’s new growths” on her complexion and smokes dope with someone else’s boyfriend, whom she can’t have. In “Jewish Hair,” set in 1946, infatuated wallflower Ida decides she “would never want to marry herself” and that “all the tricks to divert her one pain always caused another.” In “Homestay,” the narrator envies a blonde and clean-faced au pair from Denmark and wonders if her father might desire her: “You are dangerous,” says the narrator. A camp counselor in the lovely “Keeping Time” inadvertently steers her boyfriend toward a young and awkward mid-teen, unsettling the equilibrium of three people. While Sherman is generous with blue-collar yearning (Beth in “The Reaper” writes letters to a soldier in the Gulf War, interpreting his lasciviousness as romance), too much self-doubt grows a kind of prearranged heartbreak.
Sherman’s girls are destined to hurt themselves again and again. These willowy stories blows through touchingly but without enduring resonance.