April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection of five stories has a dark undercurrent.
‘Virgin and Other Stories’
by April Ayers Lawson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pp., $23 179 pages
Like electricity through a wire, sexual tension is what powers April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, “Virgin and Other Stories.” But the form of energy it supplies is never reliable and seldom understood.
Take the title story, “Virgin”: Told from the view of a young man named Jake, it concerns his perplexing wife, Sheila, who took pride in being chaste before they married but can’t break the habit now that they’re wed. What’s a guy to do?
And then there’s “Vulnerability,” in which the unnamed protagonist, a female artist, sums up the story in her first sentence: “Once I fell for my art dealer.” More than 60 pages later, the affair has followed its own logic, imbued with the memory of childhood sexual abuse.
Yet, as this troubled woman reflects (in italics) while having rough sex with her lover, “I can go home to my husband and figure out how to fix whatever is wrong with me that has led me into this bizarre situation.”
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Three of the stories focus on young people. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” the 13-year-old Gretchen takes piano lessons from Miss Grant, an uptight Juilliard graduate who emotes only at the keyboard. Gretchen is indifferent to studying music, her parents’ idea; instead, she’s preoccupied with Miss Grant’s brother, Wes, who is staying at her teacher’s home while being treated for cancer.
“I have a brain tumor. I can do whatever I want,” Wes tells Gretchen when she first encounters him lying in a back bedroom, wearing nothing but his bathrobe.
Now that’s music to a hormonally charged adolescent’s ears.
It should be clear by now that “making love” is not the appropriate euphemism for whatever happens or doesn’t happen in these stories. Even “making lust” might be a reach. Rather, this debut collection — a mere five stories, actually — concerns the complex and subterranean impulses that surround sex, and about the religious and social taboos that can keep these impulses in check but can also propel them.
So what is the take-away, if anything, from these stories? For this reader, at least, one conclusion is that adolescence truly is another country, full of compulsive and little understood feelings, and worthy of adult sympathy.
As for the stories about grown-ups, it’s a mixed bag. In “Virgin,” although the husband Jake’s frustration eventually gets the best of him, the attention is really on his wife’s push-pull attitude toward sex. Here the combination of fundamentalist religion and the older relative as sexual predator repeat a familiar recipe, and Sheila fits the mold accordingly.
“Vulnerability” is the longer and more interesting tale. Similarly constructed, with the object of desire providing bookends to the action, this story also revolves around a woman torn from the chrysalis of childhood by premature experience with sex. But this time Lawson takes the victim’s point of view, penetrating the twists and turns of her psyche.
In total, this collection conjures the dark, repressed mood of D.H. Lawrence more than it does such sexually liberated classics as the zestful “Fear of Flying” or the raunchy “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Maybe this is the pendulum swinging back, or maybe it’s just an intriguing start for a promising writer.