‘Virgin and Other Stories’ Pointed and Cohesive

"Virgin and Other Stories" by April Ayers Lawson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Virgin
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

April Ayers Lawson’s debut work, “Virgin and Other Stories,” contains five short stories that grapple with sex, love, desire, and violation. “Virgin” displays a man named Jake’s experience watching his wife, Sheila, slowly become comfortable with her sexuality. “Three Friends in a Hammock” delves into the attraction three divorced women feel towards each other. “The Way You Must Play Always” portrays 13-year-old Gretchen’s desire for her piano teacher’s brother, who is recovering from a brain tumor. “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” depicts teenage Connor’s inability to understand Charlene, a woman who was once a man. “Vulnerability” exhibits a married painter’s attraction towards her art dealer and H., one of the art dealer’s artists. All these stories function well on their own, yet the award-winning Ayers Lawson successfully connects the short stories to create one coherent and controversial work.

The themes of attraction and desire join the stories into a cohesive whole. Sometimes, short stories are only placed together because they all were written by the same person, but here, that is clearly not the case. The first story, “Virgin,” immediately brings these ideas to attention. The entire book begins with, “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.” A flashback to the attraction he felt towards his wife, Sheila, follows this portrayal of Jake’s desire for Rachel Delaney. These elements carry over to the next story, “Three Friends in a Hammock,” after which Ayers Lawson continues to address the theme in all the other stories. Even when desire is not explicitly mentioned, like in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” the idea is implicit when Connor’s mom writes only about Charlene in her diary.

Some of the themes in the pieces are purposefully disturbing and controversial, which allows Lawson to incorporate important issues within them. Sheila, Jake’s wife in “Virgin,” and the painter in “Vulnerability” are characters that struggle with experiences of sexual assault. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” Gretchen (who is only 13 years old) wants the piano teacher’s brother’s attention. This story is not only disturbing because Gretchen—who does not understand sex—desires a man who takes advantage of her to an awful extent, but also because of her desire for and sexual experiences with her cousin, Jamie. Ayers Lawson’s decision to write about rape, molestation, and sexual assault results in an exploration into the way survivors approach sex with future partners.

The structure of each story is interestingly complicated in that it switches back and forth between present and past events. For example, in “Three Friends in a Hammock,” the story moves fluidly from the tales that the narrator’s friends are telling her to her contemplation of the physical dynamics and characteristics of the friends in the hammock, then repeats. The same goes for “Virgin,” which switches between the present party scene to past events that Jake shared with his wife while she struggled with the psychological scars left of sexual assault. This structure renders the stories multifaceted and allows for the reader to get to know the characters very well in a short amount of time and space.

Ayers Lawson’s ability to compress character development is particularly impressive because the people themselves are so complex. For one, 16-year-old Connor from “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” is a self-proclaimed “hairy chronic masturbator,” and he blames a lot of his social inabilities on homeschooling. He is impulsive, telling Ally (a girl he finds attractive) that he will marry her, and the last scene brings his violent side to the surface. He has an incredibly difficult time accepting Charlene—a transgender woman—with whom his mother is friends. In other stories as well, Lawson completes pictures of her characters’ motivations and emotional statuses.

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Conventionally, stories about sex contain erotic material; yet “Virgin and Other Stories” centers itself around serious themes of attraction and desire while bringing to attention taboos such as violation and sexual assault. Universal ideas and powerful structure allow Lawson to accomplish this revision, resulting in a collection that contains more than your conventional sex stories.

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