With a title like “A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, ” Stacy Bierlein’s short story collection comes off as a fizzy beach read. And on the surface, the stories seem to be just that—stories tied together by sex, relationships and travel. But there is more in this collection—loss, in its various stages and breeds, the value of good, strong friendship and an underlying, impermeable anxiety of growing older and lonelier. For all the men they sleep with and the countries they travel, the women in these stories are all in search of something, be that compassion, intimacy or a place to belong.
In “Linguistics,” a young woman travels to Prague to mourn her father’s death alone, and instead falls in love with a Croatian man who helps her heal—despite the fact that they can hardly share a conversation. In “Men’s Furnishings,” Cheryl resents her husband’s over-indulgent shopping sprees and suspects he’s into recreational drug use in the months following the birth of their first child. And “Two Girls” is about two women enjoying nearly-perfect lives–successful careers, happy marriages, passionate affairs—who then witness an unspeakable crime that sends them reeling.
In an interview at the back of the book, Bierlein claims to “write and think in fragments,” which explains her choice to play with chronology and form. “Where It Starts” traces a relationship backward, from break-up to beginning—an interesting experiment, although disorienting at first. The title story and the very last in the collection, “An Interrogation at the Prison of Ex-Girlfriends,” set up fantasy scenarios where women are sent to places where they must face those they dread most: their ex-boyfriends and the wives of their ex-boyfriends. These are curious, fresh experiments, but they ultimately lack the emotional pull of the rest of the collection. Still, the only story that is truly sour is “Ten Reasons Not to Sleep With a Poet,” a page-and-a-half of insignificant and underdeveloped reasons why—well, you know. The list falls flat, fragmented to a fault, and doesn’t hold its own among the rest.
While the collection explores a variety of themes, its heroines are so similar to one another—wealthy, beautiful, well-educated, well-traveled—that they’re nearly interchangeable, but not quite. What separates them is how they are human—in the ways they grieve, celebrate, fight and love. (Naomi Huffman)
“A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends”
By Stacy Bierlein
Elephant Rock Books, $16, 168 pages