Book Review: Barbara the Slut and Other People


I just finished reading Barbara the Slut: and Other People (2015) by Lauren Holmes. First an anecdote: I don’t remember where I first heard about this book (a list of notable fiction of 2015? A GoodReads recommendation? A friend writing about it on Facebook?), but I put it on hold at my local library. When I went to get it, I took it to the counter to check out, instead of using one of the self-service machines. The man who checked the book out said to me, “I started to read the title, then thought better of it. Poor Barbara.”

That is part of why this collection is important. Yes, the titular character is called a slut in derisive ways by peers. But we should all be starting to move away from the assumption that a woman who is a slut is also bad. We should allow women to own their sexuality, which is what Holmes does in this collection.

Now onto the more review-y part of this review.

This collection of character-driven short stories doesn’t rely on the literary crutch of beautifully described moments-of-life. Instead, it focuses on gritty descriptions that vary from character to character (rather than a unifying “voice” or “style” that unites all the stories).

The titular character, Barbara, for instance, says “I wasn’t hard to get, but I did have standards. They were: good teeth and good skin and big hands.” Readers see her critique these features on guys in her high school, and we see her evolution from a girl who only wants to sleep with guys once (because more than that makes them dishonest) to a girl who develops a genuine interest in one guy, Jesse. We also bear witness to the slow (and potential) heartbreak of him not understanding the ways in which she owns her sexuality.

Many of the female characters in this book have, and enjoy, sex. We see one character who invites a foreigner into her apartment while he is in New York for two weeks, and allows him to stay there before he goes back to his home country — and by the end of it, she is sick of him, sick of her avoidance of him, and worried (even if not on a very tangible level) that maybe he won’t leave. She consults with her amateur MMA fighter brother on this, who offers to convincingly invite the guy to leave (she doesn’t take him up on this). This story makes clear the ways in which we can be blinded by the early stages of infatuation, and how quickly a new relationship can fade.

This story, in many ways, mirrors an earlier story in the book titled “I Will Crawl to Raleigh if I Have To,” in which a college-aged narrator descides to break up with her boyfriend who struggles with healthy relationship boundaries. He wants them to spend all their time together, which she definitely doesn’t want, and she creates rigid rules to help maintain her boundaries, until she eventually breaks up with him after a failed family vacation in North Carolina.

In another story, a boyfriend character ends his relationship with the woman (and likely protagonist of the story though I suppose we could have a discussion here about likeable-vesus-unlikeable women in literature) because she cheats on him (meaning, has sex outside their relationship agreement). SPOILER: He gets to keep the dog, Princess, that she so desperately wanted. In this story, we see the complicated nature of relationships unfold over just a dozen or so pages, and also the ways in which we break not only each other’s hearts but our own.

Part of what makes this collection so readable, and so lovely, is that Holmes doesn’t belabor any of the stories or story lines. We get multiple perspectives, different types of relationships, and different endings to all the stories. Some are happier endings than others — in that at least one character appears to be getting what they want — but others are just quietly devastating (many relationships ruined, which happens in real life). The stories end when what perhaps you want most is to know what comes next — how the characters move on (or don’t), if love prevails, if starting a new chapter in life is really enough to start over.

It’s a masterful choice on Holmes part.

If you’re looking for stories that show triumph of the human spirit, those uplifting stories that make for such popular movies about hardship, this collection is not for you. But if you’re looking for stories that demonstrate the complexity we all hold, and balance, and for stories that are heart-breakingly honest, you’ll enjoy this read.

 

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