Hot under the collar with Hot Little Hands

It’s hard to know what to write about Hot Little Hands.  The blurb on the back of the book promises that it ‘contains nine funny, confronting and pitch-perfect stories about stumbling on the fringes of innocence’.  Yes, there are nine stories; and yes, they are confronting; but no, they are not funny. Definitely, not funny.

Cover of book

The first story is about the development of an inappropriate relationship between a pupil and teacher, the second is about a girl who after sexually appeasing a boy in her high school is promptly shunned by him, the fourth story is about a group of young Russian girls who are trafficked to America.

Do you get my drift?

Abigail Ulman’s writes beautifully, and I loved the way she explored the modern complexities of adolescent girls’ and young women’s lives, particularly in relation to the negotiation of their sexual experiences.  I warmed to all the characters, whom she has each endowed with distinct and quirky personalities.

But every story has a dark and troubling sting in its tail. While I don’t need rainbows and unicorns, I would be less equivocal about this book if there had been some confirmation that life for girls and young women isn’t totally shit. My sense is that this isn’t what Ulman intended, but ultimately I was left with a feeling of despondency – something quite at odds with what was promised on the cover.



This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.


  1. Intrigued by your review, I decided to read a bit more about this book and its author.

    First I read an interview with Ulman in the Sydney Morning Herald – she comes across as so focused on telling stories of adolescents on the turning point from childhood to adulthood that she lost focus on how traumatic it can be – or maybe when you’re Gen Y you don’t think it’s traumatic, you think it’s a blast.

    Then I read a review on – she feels the same as you about the book.

    Finally, I read a couple of Goodreads reviews by people of various ages (going off their profile pictures), with varying levels of appreciation for the stories.

    I thought about my niece, who was born in 1986, and is probably around the same age as Ulman, perhaps a little younger. Her adolescence was frightening. She is tall, blonde, slender, blue-eyed, pretty and from the age of 10 the lucky recipient of cat-calls and wolf-whistles from grown men in the street, even when her dad was right next to her. Men would slow down in cars in order to shout what I’m sure they thought were compliments but were actually verbal abuse at her.

    My conclusion? I’m very glad that I was a teen in the 1980s. What we thought was grown up and ‘sexy’ was nothing like what is marketed to young women now. I get the impression that this book comes from that place, from being adolescent in a hyper-sexualised world.

    I wonder whether the insistence on saying the stories are funny is because the publisher knows that they’re not, but saying that they’re confronting without the added hope of humour, however dark it might be, won’t sell as many copies.

    If the word funny was omitted, if the blurb said “Nine confronting and pitch-perfect stories about stumbling on the fringes of innocence,” how would you have written your review?

  2. That’s exactly the conclusion that I came to – it was a marketing ploy to sell the book. It’s really the first time I’ve realised that the blurb hasn’t provided an adequate description, and been annoyed by that.
    I did wonder whether I would have felt the same had it been more accurate. I think the answer is yes – I am okay with these stories being confronting. What I did struggle with was the absence of any redemption or light or anything positive coming from them. There was one story (semi autobiographical I think) where a young woman chose motherhood instead of a publishing career – that’s a positive decision in some ways, even if made for the wrong reasons, I guess. But even that was tarnished with a small line towards the end.
    I think she’s someone to watch – I enjoyed her insights – but perhaps her darkness needs to be a little more relenting…

    • Yes, the lack of redemption was something the majority of the reviews I read mentioned. Perhaps her bleak outlook came from having writer’s block for a year. I was interested by the writers she named as mentors during her Stegner Fellowship and how she still hears them as she writes. One was Colm Toibin. I’ve only read Brooklyn so far, but he seems to have a good balance of Life Is Hard/Life Is Beautiful. Maybe she needs to hear his voice more loudly!

  3. I felt much he same as you about this collection. For better or worse, I read it around the same time as Daylight’s ‘Six Bedrooms’ which I felt had much more impact and, as a collection, seemed to work together more coherently. That said, I’m still thinking about the story of the gymnasts.

  4. Six Bedrooms is my next read – looking forward to it. And you’re totally right about the gymnasts story. I read that with my hands metaphorically over my eyes, muttering ‘no, no, no’ to myself. It was at that point I realised that if there was to be any redemption, it would be lightly spread.

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