Giving birth was the original blood oath
What kind of animal doesn’t mate? Georgie made it look easy! Nyla did this when she was practically a kid. Dulcet taught kids how to fight off pregnancy like it was a raging epidemic.
Sarah’s thoughts regarding the frigid female snow leopard playing hard-to-get with a male’s sexual overtures; her searing indignation towards reproductive apathy shortly after her fourth miscarriage.
Animal metaphors play a recurring role in Monica Drake’s The Stud Book, as much a thesis on the perils of baby-making and motherhood as it is on the stigmas of remaining childless—either by choice or otherwise—in modern America. A book explicit in its angsts of cultural expectation, it’s equally unafraid to portray the frailty, the panic, the filth, and even the dark humor inherent in the creating and raising of children.
Taking place in the mecca of microbrews, strip clubs, and rain that is Portland, Oregon, The Stud Book follows the sometimes jaunty, sometimes solemn lives of four female childhood friends at the threshold of middle-age, women who are as different to one another as any can be and still maintain a community that’s closer than family.
There’s Sarah, our quasi-main character who works at the Portland zoo breeding program filing reports into the stud book, a ledger that documents the mating patterns and frequency of a carefully controlled selection of breeding pairs based on optimum biodiversity. She longs for a baby of her own, and when that endeavor repeatedly fails, she fires off thinly-veiled coping aphorisms against the idea of knee-jerk human reproduction.
There were 250,000 people born every day, in the time it took McDonald’s to sell four million burgers, both a disgusting production line.
There’s Georgie, former academic and new mother of baby girl Bella. Self-conscious and anxious about her abilities as a mother, to the point that she can’t even bring herself to tell the 911 operator that she’d accidentally dropped a snippet of a post-c section Oxycodone pill into Bella’s open mouth for fear of being seen by a total stranger as unfit to raise a baby.
There were so many ways to fail, she thought in her panic. All she had was good intentions; the road to hell was paved with babies.
There’s Nyla, Portland cliché extraordinaire, advocate of recycling, renewables, and public gardens, and who runs a small store in the poorer side of town that deals in reclaimed and sustainable wares. A widow since her husband’s death in a car accident ten years earlier, Nyla takes pride in her ability to raise her two girls, Celestial and Arena, by herself. If Georgie is the insecure mother, Nyla grazes smugness through her own perceived strengths.
If she could hold their lives together after the accident, adapt and move on, humanity could sure as shit band together, wise up, and head off the disaster of climate change.
Finally, there’s Dulcet Marvel, formerly Tina Stanton, the only single and childless one by choice. A photographer by trade, she makes extra money teaching sex-ed to high school kids by wearing skin-tight latex suits printed with life-like illustrations of human anatomy. Raised on Ritalyn and Benadryl, built to last, entirely anti-baby, Dulcet is nothing less than genuine in her pride at not having ever felt the desire to bear children. Even after two abortions, she still maintains that children are man’s way of deferring having to deal with the inconsequential truth of existence.
Having babies only palmed off the existential angst on the next generation. It was a way to cheat, not a solution to meaninglessness.
The men who orbit these ladies play their smaller, though not insignificant roles. Sarah’s husband, Ben, is a loan officer with a pragmatist-bordering-on-cynical streak: Weddings are only the first step in learning to blow money together in the name of love. He’s also somewhat of a milquetoast partner, torn between the beautiful, intelligent woman he married and whom he acknowledges is too good for him, and his rekindling feelings for his college ex, Hannah, who has recently won a state senate seat. When he’s not slipping in his workplace bathroom and breaking his nose after masturbating to a newspaper picture of Hannah, he’s out drinking as Sarah bleeds at home following her recovery from her fourth miscarriage.
Enticing Sarah when she’s not ogling the most virile looking of day laborers she drives past on a daily basis, is her zoo coworker, Dale. Sensitive, present, and carefree in most ways Ben either isn’t or has forgotten to be, Dale is a constant, often frustrating reminder of last-chance possibility for Sarah in the fertilization department.
The antithesis would be Humble, Georgie’s husband and consummate barfly. Self-absorbed to the point of indifference, he hardly raises an eyebrow when Georgie trips down the stairs one night with Bella in her arms. Humble’s favorite pastime is a bar game called “Dead-girl shots,” the point of which is to take a shot whenever a girl is found in a dumpster or dredged from a river during any number of CSI-type shows constantly showing at his preferred watering hole.
Cross-connecting or flying off on their own tangents, these disparate characters churn up a mélange of quirkiness, absurdity, and even pathos.
Sarah licking Bella’s poop off her arm, thinking it was mustard from a sandwich she’d just nibbled from, a further reminder of her inexperience at motherhood as well as her inability to conceive.
Georgie using a white-noise machine to keep Bella asleep, providing her ample opportunity to finally get writing that novel she’s always dreamed about based on the esoteric French artist of her dissertation, only to end up starting a nonfiction book about motherhood and babies instead.
Nyla making bread starter to give to her friends, this to stave off focusing on recent troubling events at her store and with her daughter, Arena—and experiencing near levels of farce in trying to deliver them.
Dulcet, having been banned from the school for an impromptu lesbian encounter on campus with a school employee, considering prostitution with a man who’d witnessed one of her sex-ed seminars, and who insists she wear her latex suit for the session.
Ben sneaking out of work to buy expensive facial concealer at Nordstrom’s to cover up the bruising on his face from his earlier self-love-related mishap.
Moments of irony abound throughout. The mandrill that Sarah’s been monitoring at the zoo, conceiving unexpectedly and rather easily even after being declared genetically redundant and given a birth control implant. Dulcet, the most anti-child of them all, taking the most pride in encouraging Arena’s artistic pursuits. Nyla, the most experienced mother, bordering on over-bearing and even negligence.
The Stud Book is replete with sexual imagery and innuendo of the animal variety, especially through Sarah’s point of view. After pondering the male mandrill’s brightly colored butt, which attracts the females and holds the family together, she sees Dale and thinks, In the distance, Dale, in deep purple shorts, straddled his mountain bike and pumped up the side of a hill into the thick green manicured shrubbery of the Oregon rain forest where it had been groomed to make way for Employees Only paths.
She sees reproduction everywhere, from the seeds embedded in the paper Nyla sells at her store, to fixating on the seeds in a pomegranate that Dulcet has opened. One could even argue that this extends to the subconscious by virtue of the fact that the only two childless characters (her and Dulcet) are also the only ones with dogs, whom they treat as surrogate children.
If the book has its flaws, they’re not enough to take away from the experience of The Stud Book as a whole. Drake has a tendency now and then to punctuate paragraphs or passages with a redundant line that repeats the idea she had just cleverly executed. By contrast, a few scenes of drama and suspense, ranging from a dog leaping into traffic, to the near sexual assault of a child, end somewhat anti-climactically and are not revisited.
But these issues stem less from a lack of discipline than they do from an overabundance of material and absolute passion for the work. Drake is too intelligent, sensitive, and witty a writer—with a keen ear for the melodies and counter-melodies of the human soul—for her gifts not to gleam through all the funny and the dark and the in between.
By the end, the women have acquired some hard-earned wisdom, the fly-by-night men have come through, and they’ve all been forced to catch up to their ages when tragedy strikes one of their ranks. The Stud Book celebrates the importance of community. It does take a village, not only to raise children, and to bolster the raisers.
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