Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Southern Lady Code,' Helen Ellis Brings Her Hilarity To Southern Manners

Helen Ellis is a hoot. That's Northern Critic Code for "Don't expect serious essays on pressing topics, but prepare yourself for some off-the-wall hilarity."

Southern Lady Code is Ellis's follow-up to American Housewife, her 2016 short story collection, which unleashed a riotous, twisted take on domesticity. This first book of nonfiction expands her riff on Southern manners and the "technique by which, if you don't have something nice to say, you say something not-so-nice in a nice way."

A few examples: "An 'archivist' is Southern Lady Code for slob"; " 'If it happens, it happens' is Southern Lady Code for we don't want kids" (a choice made by Ellis and her husband); " 'Early-developed' is Southern Lady Code for brace face and B cups.' "

Transplanted from Alabama to Manhattan's tony Upper East Side, Ellis is not just a hoot but a character — which is Northern Critic Code for her own carefully curated creation. Her breakfast of choice includes Coke. She's partial to her neighborhood uniform of dyed hair and tan Burberry trenchcoats, though she wears yoga pants on jigsaw puzzle nights; a fellow puzzler wears a cardigan, "which we Southern ladies consider active wear." She quips, "My idea of child's pose is crouching over a box top."

Ellis, whose Twitter handle is @WhatIDoAllDay, defines her lifestyle as "writing, poker, puzzling, movies, dinner with friends, housework, naps." She comments with typical self-deprecating wit, "If these were clues on The $100,000 Pyramid, the answer would be, 'Things you do in a Retirement Home!' "

Self-satire is key to her humor. In a piece about her uneasy feeling that she has mistakenly taken another woman's trenchcoat, she draws a distinction between "rich people problems" and real problems. "I'm lucky to have the life that I have, so my motto is: Oh, it's fine," she writes. She says she is the type who doesn't "send food back in a restaurant unless there's a finger in it. There's never a finger in it, so I don't send food back."

As for real problems, she cites a few she and her husband have faced, including multiple family deaths. To this list, Ellis casually appends a shocker: "I was raped." This is not something you can drop lightly like a trenchcoat on a bed and expect readers to ignore. We wait for her to pick it up again, perhaps in the context of personal stories about deflecting muggers with hairspray or coming home to find a construction worker "enjoying himself" (more Southern Lady Code) in her bedroom. But it seems she has Marie Kondoed this assault along with all the other things that didn't spark joy in her closet. Understandably. Mentioning it, however, calls for discussion.

Comic essayists typically have their foils: David Sedaris has Hugh and his sisters; Ellis has her beloved husband, Mr. Haris, and her outspoken mama, who attended law school in her 40s. She writes, "All my life, my mother has taught me to be polite in extreme situations. Teaching your children to say 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, sir,' and chew with their mouths closed, and pick their noses in private is for amateurs. My mother is an Emily Post for the Apocalypse." Example: "Helen Michelle, if you're going to commit suicide, what you do is get into a bathtub fully clothed." Why? Good manners: It facilitates cleanup, and no one has to see you "nekkid."

As with Sedaris, it's sometimes hard to tell Ellis's fiction from her nonfiction. In both genres, she is better at stringing together choker-length one-liners than going long and deep with full strands. Several pieces in Southern Lady Code offer advice, invariably unsolicited and in Southern Lady mode. In "Young Ladies, Listen to Me," she admonishes: "If you can't afford pearls, red nail polish is your best accessory. ... Flip-flops are not shoes. Leggings are not pants. ... If a deliveryman packs two forks, you're overeating."

Amid disquisitions on the importance of thank-you notes and a hilariously graphic description of a mammogram ("Picture putting a water balloon between two coffee table books made out of taxicab partitions and flattening that balloon until right before it bursts"), Ellis occasionally ventures into more weighty territory. She decries the effrontery of pornography on Twitter. Her account of a prank her father played at her 13th-birthday party — for which he hired an actor who pretended to be a murderous intruder waving around a real gun — lets him off easy for a stunt that terrorized her friends and would raise more than eyebrows today. No need to wonder where Ellis gets her subversive, Gothic sense of humor.

Southern Lady Code shifts into a more somber key with "Serious Women," Ellis' report on a gruesome murder trial prosecuted by a friend. Just as she acknowledges the difference between luxury problems and real problems, Ellis also recognizes the distinction between the serious work this Bronx assistant district attorney does versus her own occupation: "I write silly stories for money," she declares.

Don't knock the wit. Southern Lady Code may not be weighty, but Ellis is fun — like the Nutter Butter snowmen she serves at her retro holiday parties. That's Northern Critic Code for "Give yourself a treat."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
More Stories