Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge,' Helen Ellis' home life takes center stage


David Sedaris has Hugh. Gracie Allen had George. And Helen Ellis has Lex. Beloved partners and foils for their comedy.

Ellis' home life takes center stage in Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage, her latest collection of hilarious, off-the-wall personal essays. Not just personal but, as her subtitle promises, at times intimate.

The most surprising revelation: Three months into lockdown, after 25 years of monogamy, the couple decides to refresh their sex life with Viagra. Ellis writes, "If someone told me when I was younger that the best sex I'd ever have would be in my fifties with my fifty-something-year-old husband, I'd never have believed them." In a book set largely during the dark days of the pandemic, she also offers this bit of advice: "A secret to a happy marriage is to seek out the bright side."

Ellis moved from her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, hometown to New York City in 1992, bringing her twisted Gothic humor and Southern Lady Code with her. (Featured in her book of that title, the Code boils down to: "If you don't have something nice to say, you say something not-so-nice in a nice way.")

During years of painful literary rejections, Ellis worked as a secretary and also became a top-tier poker player. She married Lex Haris, a journalist, in 2001. But, despite his best efforts, she didn't move into the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment in which he'd grown up as a first generation Greek American — the setting for many of her stories — until they were engaged. In "How to Talk About Touchy Subjects," Ellis relays how he brought up the issue: "I want to talk with you about doing something you said you'd never do," he said over a dinner celebrating their two-year dating anniversary. "Whale watch?" she asked, with perfect comic timing.

They still live in his family's old apartment, although it's been renovated. The Coral Lounge is what they call their TV room, "because we painted it a delirious shade of coral that borders on Starburst candy orange."

It's hard to top the fusillade of violent verbs — shredding cheese, strangling defrosted spinach — with which Ellis described the mad homemaker attacking food prep in her 2016 breakout book, American Housewife. But she comes close. In "Married...with Plants," about another pleasurable pandemic pastime besides sex and stickers (don't ask), she writes that before she found a virtual plant care consultant, "I smother-mothered my succulents. I sun-poisoned my calathea."

Ellis manages to keep things fresh even when she returns to subjects she's written about before — including housecleaning, undergarments, and Christmas trees. In "How to Keep House," she's a motivational cheerleader: "Refold your bra drawer because it looks like a turtle orgy. Vacuum your feelings. Angry cleaning is still cleaning." As for summiting the Mount Everest of laundry: "If you can fold a fitted sheet, you can conquer the world."

As in her last book, Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light, several of the essays find inspiration in Nora Ephron and her gift for capturing the universal in one's own domestic and cosmetic concerns. In "My Husband Snores and Yours Will Too," Ellis writes about how her husband's nighttime sonic blasts work their way into her dreams: "More than once, I have dreamed I was being seduced by Darth Vader." Her friends' husbands, she says, "sound like they're chainsawing crackers in bed. How do I know? Because this is what we talk about when we talk about our husbands. Snoring and skin tags and prostates and knees."

Not all of the 19 essays are winners, but even the lesser entries feature more laugh lines than a before ad for face cream. In "How to Collect Art," Ellis offers a few clever distinctions — between découpage and décolletage and between folk art ("poor people did it") and outside art ("crazy people did it").

Ellis has some serious points to make, but unlike Ann Patchett's earnest This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, comedy is what drives Coral Lounge. Even so, Ellis makes clear that a successful marriage involves recognizing your limitations and sharing a willingness to try new things, some of which take (like Viagra), and some of which don't (like swing dancing). Ellis quips, "When it comes to activities, my husband and I are like horse-pill-size multivitamins: one a day. All my marathons are on HGTV. I won't run to catch a bus. I burn calories talking with my hands."

Ellis caps this charming collection with an ever-evolving "Contract for a Happy Marriage." Among its amendments is a "Material Clause." What's that? It's an acknowledgment of the source of her literary material: "Mrs. will not 'pressure' Mr. to do things so that she can have something to write about. Those activities may include, but are not limited to, bungee jumping, ziplining, flea markets, corn mazes, sadomasochistic role-play, 'anything on a boat' or 'leaving the city to do something he can do in the city.'"

Fair warning: These are a few things we won't be reading about in Ellis's next book. But I'm sure she'll find something else to amuse us.

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.