March 2012

Michelle Pretorius

fiction

A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein

"In three days we have played, cried, ran, fought, laughed, danced, and built fires with them all -- every man we've ever wanted. We're exhausted." So begins the title story of Stacy Bierlein's debut story collection, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends.Bierlein cofounded and co-edits the independent press Other Voices Books, whose mission is to promote the short-story form, and her own work reflects a love and mastery of the medium. Bierlein's easy prose depicts the joy, despair, and longing of her female characters, creating a landscape of feminine sexuality with strong themes of friendship, loss, and salvation. Physical landscapes feature vividly in the stories as well, with settings ranging from L.A., New Orleans, and Chicago to a magical island in the Atlantic, Prague, the temples of Luxor, and regions of Myanmar. Bierlein gives an authentic feel to all these locales and through them we are ushered into the sexy, sometimes hilarious world of women and the people they love and stalk, often longing for a foreign place where things might be better.

Two magically-realistic stories bookend the collection: "A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends," in which two friends' island vacation turns into a Survivor-style run-in with their ex-boyfriends, and "An Interrogation at the Prison of Ex-Girlfriends," in which a wife kidnaps all her cheating husband's ex-girlfriends with the help of a poetry-reciting, ax-wielding assistant. Both these stories are delightfully humorous, but feel out of sync with the rest of the collection, which takes a more serious, realistic tone. Bierlein's stories often revolve around the instantaneous and enduring friendships between women with similar pasts. Both characters lose their mothers at a young age in "Two Girls," which explores marriages and extra-marital affairs -- but ends violently, unexpectedly, and out of step with the rest of the story -- and both characters are raised in family businesses in "In the Protection of Levees," a celebration of "the value of girls sticking together."

In the process of exploring the female landscape, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends often neglects its male characters. They come across as isolated cardboard cutouts or as a mainly negative force rather than a three-dimensional presence in the women's lives. "Linguistics" is an exception, however, and takes a haunting look at two strangers who meet in Prague, the narrator and a Croatian man, Alen, who overcome their language barrier to help each other heal from traumatic experiences. Dialogue takes a backseat to haunting descriptions that emphasize an overwhelming sense of loss for both the characters. We witness the breakdown of a relationship that was doomed to failure. "Alen is losing hold on his obsession with me, returning somewhere else. It is happening so slowly that he does not see. I know. You see, we are healing, losing the power of fresh pain, the superhuman push of Czech performers' red gowns, vivid new words, our eyes, mouths. He stares out this window often, not at Stare Mesto, but things beyond. When your body is your primary language, you intuit more powerfully than you could have ever imagined."

Because of its strong voice and humor, "Blink and Release Me" stands out as a gem in the collection. A woman waits with her husband in a hospital under the glare of her three boring sisters-in-law after her mother-in-law responded to a disagreement by having a heart attack. The narrator thinks back on her relationship with her husband and his family and the Oedipal complex her mother-in-law tries to instill when the narrator marries her son. "The thing is, my very existence upsets my mother-in-law. I didn't have to say a thing. Earlier today she pulled my thirty-year-old husband onto her lap as she spoke to him. Later she sat on his lap. And she scooted deep into his lap. I though, I am the only one in this room who should have any contact with his lap region. Her behavior would make even the most ardent anti-Freudians flinch."

Bierlein's stories are overtly sexual, but she strikes a balance by baring her characters' inner turmoil with grace and understanding. By the end of A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, we are indeed left exhausted, swept along satisfyingly by the exotic locations and emotional highs and lows of the characters, recognizing a few of the women in our lives in them along the way.

A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein
Elephant Rock Productions
ISBN: 978-0615529776
190 pages