The first important thing you need to know about Monica Drake's The Stud Book (Hogarth, 2013) is that it is set in Portland, Oregon. We love Portland, Oregon here in this house. We do. We love its quirky liberal crunchiness, Reed College and Powell's bookstore, the Chinese tea garden, and everything else about it. We haven't been there in ages, but Portland is etched forever in our early '90s-nostalgic once young-adult brains as the mecca of hip, the very definition of cool.
The second thing you need to know is that I have an infinite appreciation for authors who capture thirty- and forty-something life, marriage, and parenthood in ways that are sharp, insightful, full of heart, and very hilarious. If you take those appealing literary qualities and plunk them down in Portland, you instantly have my attention.
In other words, I am perhaps an ideal reader of The Stud Book. And, dear reader, I could not put it down.
The Stud Book takes us into the lives of four longtime friends: Georgie, a new mom who is hoping to hang on to a semblance of her professional self; Nyla, a widowed earth-mother of two older girls, newly pregnant without a partner; Sarah, an animal behaviorist who spends her time studying zoo animals' mating and parenting habits but who is herself unable to carry a pregnancy to term; and Dulcet, a struggling artist, single woman, and part-time health and anatomy presenter in the public schools. We also meet the wonderful Arena, Nyla's bright and sensitive teen daughter; Arena's juvenile delinquent boyfriend; and the men: Humble, Georgie's not-quite-ready-for-fatherhood creepy drinking-game playing husband; Ben, who tries but fails to support Sarah; and Dale, Sarah's attractive co-worker. Drake explores the hilarity and pain of their lives and relationships, poking fun at their types in ways that are both perfectly observed and yet not without kindness.
I loved the plot and the rotating point of view, but it it was the author's tone and her compelling characters that drew me in and kept me captive. Georgie's struggle hit close to home, Sarah's miscarriages broke my heart , and Arena's intense teenage sincerity brought out the mother in me. Everyone knows someone a bit like Nyla, whom we both admire and sometimes question for her idealism. Some scenes made me laugh right out loud then instantly filled me with compassion (I'm very sorry, Ben, about your accident in the men's room, but oh, did I giggle). One of my favorite chapters, and a perfect example of Drake's skillful portrayal of the many facets of life's humor and irony was Georgie's gloriously anticipated moment of heading off to an academic conference in which she was to introduce an important speaker, only to find she has been assigned to escort Clifford The Big Red Dog. Georgie seethes with resentment at Clifford and the organizers and this mommy-track assignment, when all hell breaks loose - her child melts down, Georgie is knocked off her feet, she finds herself on the floor looking up at Johnny Depp, the conference celebrity. Who comes to her rescue? None other than Clifford:
[Georgie] knew who was inside that costume: a mom. Somebody unemployed. Maybe someone with a graduate degree, out to network. Maybe it was a writer-mom with a book in process, an agent in New York, a dream as big as all Manhattan. It was somebody who knew how to sling a diaper bag, push a stroller, and not miss a beat...Inside that big dope of a dog, inside that dancing red costume, was at least one part of the woman, the caretaker, Georgie tried to pretend to be. This she thought, this dog, is how we dress a mom. Her own head felt like a puppet's then, big and fuzzy, blinking under fluorescent lights, hiding another brain deep inside.A deft turn by Drake, reminding us none of her characters, nor any of us, are so simple or definable as we might outwardly appear to be.
Have I mentioned that I could not put the book down?
My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of The Stud Book.