(Book Review) Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes

By David Nilsen

Melinda Guerra and I both recently read Lauren Holmes’s buzzed-about debut story collection Barbara the Slut and Other People. I decided to suggest sharing a conversation about the book instead of writing a proper review, because I’m lazy I thought that would be new and interesting for our readers. Enjoy, and feel free to argue with us in the comments.


barbaraDavid Nilsen: So. Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes. What was your initial response to the book once you finished it?

Melinda Guerra: When I finished it?  “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”  The first few stories were pretty rough for me.

David: Yeah? Talk a little about those early stories.

Melinda: I read the first story, and hadn’t paid attention to the fact that it was a collection of short stories–I’d just picked up the book and started reading. So when I finished the first story, I thought that was an interesting setup for the book, and wondered what happened next… and then my husband pointed out that it was actually a collection of short stories. I was moderately hopeful in the beginning as a first chapter; as its own short story, I didn’t care for it at all. I didn’t like the second one much better.  I went to the title story (at the end) and found it slightly more interesting, but I worried the whole thing would be “meh.”   It got better, though.

David: I didn’t care for the first story much either. In the ten stories in this collection she has this “slice of life” technique where she doesn’t have too much actually happen and resolve in the space of the story. It’s just a segment of the lives of characters and from that we get the characters themselves rather than a plot. Which is fine, and works better in some stories than in others. It works better, for example, in the stories where those characters are actually interesting. The first story–How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?–feels so thin, and its narrator so insubstantial, there just doesn’t seem much to grasp onto. That could well be my failing as the reader, but it was far from a bang-up start to the book.

Melinda: If it’s a failing, it’s one we share.  I’d have preferred she start with a different story.  What do you think would have been the ideal opener for the book, if she’d kept the same stories?

David: I hesitate to dictate to the author what she should have done, but I would have felt much better starting off with the title story, or Desert Hearts, the story of the female law school grad who pretends to be a lesbian so she can get a job at a sex toy shop while she figures out her life. Those have a lot more personality, and reflect Holmes’s impish humor better.

Melinda: I think Desert Hearts  was my favorite of the collection, and certainly the one that made me laugh the most. I Will Crawl Back to Raleigh If I Have To was fun–I hated Tina, the woman of the family they were vacationing with, and felt for poor Natalie who wanted to be rid of the boring boyfriend.

David: The three stories I unreservedly enjoyed were Desert HeartsBarbara the Slut, and, surprisingly, My Humans, the one story in the collection narrated by a dog. I knew it was in there, I didn’t expect to like it, and yet I did. I wouldn’t have been able to read two stories like that, but one was clever and charming.

Melinda: Those are fair picks for a top three list.  I’m not sure the book would have caught my eye had it not been for the title and the cover (with all the books to choose from, I do choose mine in part by their covers).  While I didn’t love the collection completely, I found several stories amusing in pieces, and actively enjoyed a few.  The stories are pretty different from each other; I think most people can probably read the book and pick out at least a couple of stories they enjoyed, and I think the picks would likely vary about as much as the people.

David: That all sounds fair. I too jumped all over the title and cover, and the description of the title story, which were the only things I was going on in selecting to read the book for review. What do you think about Holmes writing about or from the perspective of people in very different positions from herself–a Hispanic woman, a personal with a disability, a Swiss man, gays and lesbians, a Japanese man, etcetera. Does she pull that off well?

Melinda: I struggle with the thought that we can only write well about what we live ourselves. I know that’s not what you’re insinuating, but I think it’s an assumption that gets made sometimes.  On the other hand, people can write about characters of different backgrounds or identities from themselves in stereotype-dependent ways, and that’s just lazy.

I think there are stories that tend toward the stereotypes pretty heavily (example: I know more lesbians with long hair than I do with the crew cut/short hair & rat tail/ faux hauk styles described in Desert Hearts), but I don’t think that takes away from our favorite pieces; some of our favorite TV shows work precisely because the characters are such stereotypes of the groups they represent.

Tell me your thoughts on how Holmes deals with sexuality throughout the book.

David: She seems very sex positive, which is nice to see. Sex is given generous treatment but is often the least complicated thing happening in the lives of her characters. When it does cause complication or trouble, it’s often largely because of how they have to explain it to other people in their lives. Barbara the Slut of the eponymous story is a teenage girl who likes sex. The sex she enjoys is consensual, safe, and casual. Her high school–and most of our society–has no idea what to do with such a specimen beyond shame and punish her. In this way sex complicates her life, but it’s not the sex, it’s everyone’s reaction to her having sex. In Desert Hearts the main character works at a sex toy shop, and the story talks frankly and lightly about lubes, strap-ons, vibrators, and everything else one finds in a sex toy shop. But the story really has nothing to do with that stuff at all. It’s about the character trying to figure out what she needs from life, how she is going to answer the inevitable question so, what do you do?, and how she is going to be defined by her answer. She’s freaked out about those big questions and their weight. You know what she’s not freaked out by at all though? Gold glitter dildos. Holmes writes a lot about sex, but it’s really never the point. People have sex. Her characters have sex. And then the rest of life happens around it.

Melinda: That’s true–I agree with you, and appreciate that Holmes doesn’t seem to apologize for it.

A nice quote from one of your favorite stories?  I’m doing one from I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have to:

“James didn’t do well with the rules, so I had to make more rules–no surprising me outside of my classes on the days we weren’t supposed to hang out, and then no surprising me even on the days we were supposed to hang out. Then no surprising me with my favorite breakfasts from the dining hall when I was on my way out of my dorm. And then no surprising me at all, for any reason. Basically, my first year of college was a total bust. I didn’t make any friends, and I didn’t do well in any of my classes, and I didn’t learn anything about life. All I did was date James. And by the end of the year I didn’t even want to do that.”  – page 83

You?

David: I’m honestly not sure I can come up with one particular quote. There were very amusing lines here and there, some of them quite funny. But no passages that stuck with me enough to retain and share.

Ultimately, what is your take on the book?

Melinda: It’s a fine way to pass a Saturday afternoon. There are times I don’t really want to delve into something intense or that has me taking notes on index cards while flipping back and forth through the chapters, and this book is a fine pick for those days. I like that Holmes makes no apology for the sexuality of her characters, and the stories definitely have their entertaining bits.

David: I enjoyed the book on principle more than in execution, mostly for the way sexuality was presented. Ultimately, though there aren’t many actual complaints to make about the stories, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. It was fine. In some places it was quite good. In the end, it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would be.

Melinda: Ah well. I guess that’s bound to happen with some books. Maybe we’ll find someone who loves the book and can’t wait to tell us how wrong we are. Wouldn’t that be nice?

David: Would it? I always like to have my opinions reassured and coddled. We’ll see.


Barbara the Slut and Other People is available now at Greenville Public Library.

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