Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Stud Book

By Monica Drake
Hogarth, Random House Group, 318 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 4

Sarah, Georgie, Nyla and Dulcet, all women approaching middle age in Portland, Oregon, have been friends since high school. The Stud Book follows a short interval in their lives filled with upheaval caused by the brain-stem-drive to reproduce, good and bad, and how each can lead to the other.

Sarah watches baby animals at the zoo all day, the species confined there and the ones that come to see them. She is an expert on animal husbandry and the stud books used by the world's zoos to manage the populations; a little more of this, a little less of that. Her husband Ben grew up downwind of a chemical plant that has left his hometown barren, and maybe him, too. After the fourth miscarriage, desperation to reproduce (she is frustrated with the zoo's snow leopards who are becoming extinct and don't seem to know it), the stud books give her an idea. Sarah starts eyeballing men all over town for promising genetic material. Cue Heart.

Georgie is a lit PhD with a "French feminist tramp stamp" (tribute to Simone de Beauvoir), a newborn and a husband named Humble. He should be more so. Georgie has a favorite paradigm - the "rhetorical triangle": author, audience and text. When their daughter Bella is born, for Georgie "The meaning of the world shifted from the life of the mind to the bloody, seeping, heartbeat center. . . . Any mind-body split was blasted out of the water once her own body was nurturing a new mind." Humble's reaction to his wife's new role is bourbon and a morbid interest in the myriad depictions of dead girls and women on TV. See practically any television show, ever.

Nyla is the embodiment of Portland's hippie past, embroiled in a tug-of-war with it's hipster present. She is a widow with two daughters, Celestial and Arena (I told you she was a hippie), trying to build a future with her new zero-waste retail store. Celestial is off at Brown but Arena is in high school and having a hard time finding her place. Nyla is so busy saving the world for the next generation; writing checks she can't afford to a dozen different charities (liberal guilt); opening her new eco-perfection store in a gentrifying neighborhood (which she feels guilty about); and a new pregnancy of her own (ditto); that she fails to notice when Arena, Nyla's next generation, begins slipping.

Dulcet (no, that is not her real name) is unmarried and childless by choice. She teaches sex-ed to adolescents while wearing an anatomically-correct latex bodysuit. Dulcet is prone to a variety of mind-altering substances, experimental art installations and equally experimental sexual relationships. She is free of all claims on her body, mind and time, and she likes it that way. Her only apparent long-term relationships and loyalty belong to her small circle of friends. Is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose? Cue Janis.

Ah, women and babies, fraught with feuding emotion. I love babies, their heads always smell so good. That fragrance is hard-wired into the female of the species, a direct hot line, red phone to the ovaries. (And YES, I know that not EVERY female primate has a strong maternal instinct, so please no mail.) That's why pills are important, otherwise we'd all have 20 kids like that clan in Arkansas. With the ability to plan pregnancies comes the responsibility to consider more than just personal and private concerns: population, environment, quality of life, mutual responsibilities owed, allocation of resources, the Social Contract, both personal and political. The personal is political. Especially in Portland.

The climax of The Stud Book, the cataclysmic event that brings all of these parties eyeball-to-eyeball with the consequences of the choices they've made (and the choices they've avoided making), is a shock. I did not expect this and I am an experienced hand at this plot business. The characters are fully-drawn women, which is always a treat. Ms. Drake makes you care about what happens to these women, sympathetic and empathetic. Ben is a complete character, too, but Humble doesn't get much development. His arc ends (begins?) with a sort-of revelation, a conversion, if you will, just as sudden as the aforementioned shocking event. I can't tell you any more than this. Portland itself is a character in this book; the constant struggle between tradition, development, capital and responsible sustainability. This is not a book where all of the story lines come together in a neat bow at the end. But it does end with fresh possibilities. Who can ask for more than that?

Monica Drake is the author of Clown Girl, winner of an Eric Hoffer Award and an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award). Her essays and short stories have appeared in a variety of journals, and she is a regular contributor to the Oregonian, the Portland Mercury, and the Stranger (Seattle). Ms. Drake has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is currently on the faculty at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

The Stud Book will be available April 9. You can pre-order from this blog with Amazon or IndieBound.

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