Sex is troubled terrain for young women in America. Despite decades of feminist progress, for many girls today, sex is still more about servicing others than claiming their own desire. In such a context, the lucid, sensual stories of Anna Noyes’s debut collection — which explore young women’s sexual awakening around coastal Maine — are likely to be received as tonic.
The 11 stories in “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” examine sexual initiation, sometimes consensual, sometimes not: A young mother recalls childhood incest and her own betrayal of a friend; two sisters, 10 and 15, sunbathe by a quarry and argue over the sexual attentions of a pedophilic neighbor; a college girl vacationing with her boyfriend’s parents finds herself pregnant; a grandmother recalls a lesbian affair 60 years before. Only one story is told from a male perspective, that of a father trying to figure out how to discuss a local rape with his 12-year-old daughter, as he grows uncomfortably aware of her developing body.
The opening story, “Hibernation,” sets the tone for the collection, in which danger and intimacy mix. A husband disappears one night, presumed drowned in a quarry. The young wife calls the sheriff, then prepares for his arrival with unsettling calm: “It was difficult picking out appropriate clothing for a woman who’d just lost her husband. She combed her hair until it sparked with static. Joni, who once cried over a Folgers Coffee commercial, hadn’t cried yet. This frustrated her, like a sneeze that wouldn’t come.” The mystery of the husband’s disappearance — Was it suicide? Did she kill him? Is he alive and stalking her? — becomes a story about the mystery of love and of mourning.
Noyes’s stories work by elision. Partial, elusive, inconclusive, they are like lit windows on trailers glimpsed from the road. One has a sense of peering in, fascinated but no less baffled than the characters.
Hers is a spare and disjunctive style. If the fiction of Stephen King and Alice Munro had a literary love child, it might look like this: luminous domestic moments married to a pervasive sense of threat. “The snow hisses under our wheels,” Noyes writes. “Eyes flash from the ditches. Mom’s teeth make a stony sound as she grinds them in her sleep.” Such distilled perceptions bring us close to the mystery of character — our own and others’.
Noyes is a master of disturbing juxtapositions that interpolate childhood games with sexuality, suggesting something dangerous in both. “My insides were a collection of happenings,” says the young narrator in “This Is Who She Was.” “The first, the cyst on my left ovary. I was eleven, sleeping over in a summer girl’s guest bedroom. I woke up at sunrise to a mouthful of spit, and stayed awake swallowing. That morning I went with her family to the Children’s Relay at the town pool. In the deep end, the lifeguard floated saltines on the surface of the water. We were meant to swim to the crackers before they dissolved, eat the pulpy mush, and race each other back to the shallows. At the finish line all cracker was to be swallowed; they would check our mouths. I threw up in the water. The gynecologist’s fingers were the first I had inside me, and then her jellied speculum.”
These stories are appealingly frank and astute about sex on the cusp of adulthood, when childhood informs desire. Metaphors of children’s toys and pets abound: “Luke and I had sex once, in the outdoor shower. . . . The shower stall walls were made out of splintery compressed woodchips. It smelled the way my gerbil’s cage used to smell.”
Noyes also insightfully portrays the ambivalent maturity of girls who have come of age sexually but are still just kids. Visiting her parents’ house for dinner, the protagonist of the final story, “Homecoming,” wishes she could send her fiance home and “stay the night in my mom’s bed, eating Pop-Tarts and watching Special Victims Unit.” Instead, she hugs her parents goodbye and drives “the six minutes to our house in the woods, panicked with homesickness, like I was attending the world’s longest sleepover.”
The cavalcade of trauma — drowning, rape, incest, cancer, suicide, burglary, pedophilia — can tip toward melodrama. But Noyes’s prose is admirably restrained, and the real drama remains that of character, the mystery we are to ourselves.
Psychologically astute as Noyes is, though, her portraits of sexual trespass, common to almost half the stories, sometimes ring false — as when rape begets desire or when a grown daughter recalls incest as a blossoming: “Back then I didn’t think too much about the times Dad touched me, except in a magical way, in which I thought the reason my body grew so curvy so early was because of his hands. Everyone could see, like he’d watered me and I was a plant that grew overnight. But I didn’t hate him.” At such moments, Noyes’s stories recall fairy tales, with their vulnerable girls in the woods, reassuring readers that trespass may be welcomed, a fantasy fitting for a culture afraid to look more closely at the dark.
E.J. Levy’s debut story collection is “Love, in Theory.”
By Anna Noyes
Grove/Atlantic. 216 pp. $24