(Penguin Random House)

Out of the 10 stories in “Barbara the Slut and Other People,” the debut short-story collection of author Lauren Holmes, half feature breakups.

Breakups “are just a better place for a story than a good, romantic relationship,” Holmes says in a phone interview. She wrote the collection in her 20s, the decade when most of us are trying to figure out “who we’re supposed to be with,” Holmes says.

“For a book to be largely about 20-somethings,” she says, it has to be “about the trials and tribulations of relationships, and dating, and breakups.”

Holmes’s characters break up with their college sweethearts, sleep with losers and know it, and lie about their sexuality. Her narrators are often women who are funny, imaginative and, yes, a little slutty. But like in the case of Amy Schumer’s comedic persona, sluttiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

[Amy Schumer, we’re not ready for your happy ending just yet]

In the titular story, “Barbara the Slut,” Barbara is a high school senior who enjoys sleeping around: “Maybe I wasn’t hard to get, but I did have standards,” she says. Barbara is also bright, and after she’s admitted to the college of her choice — Princeton — her classmates react by attacking her: “At lunch I went to the cafeteria to get chocolate milk and somebody yelled ‘whore,’ so I went to eat in my car,” Holmes narrates.

Her tormentors are cast as being in the wrong, not Barbara. As Holmes notes in an interview with Granta: “Women are allowed to like sex now, but there’s a fine line between liking it and liking it too much. When we cross that line we’re sluts or sex addicts (mostly just sluts — the more honourable and blameless term ‘sex addict’ seems to be reserved for men).”

In another story — “Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love” — an unnamed woman breaks a year-long dry spell by meeting a Swiss guy on the Internet and sleeping with him after their second date. Once they’ve had sex, he reveals that he’s leaving town in just over a month. On the subway ride home, she tries not to cry. She wonders “if it was time for my period, or if I was actually sad.” She knows that she’s being manipulated; the only question is: by what, or by whom?

In Holmes’s collection, men also fail to escape the consequences of their sexual choices. In “My Humans,” the family dog Princess catalogues the breakup of her owners, Mike and Jenna, after Mike catches Jenna cheating on him: “There is a space between Mike and Jenna and I sleep in it.” At first Mike is angry, but when a friend calls Jenna “a lying, cheating whore,” he defends her. “She’s not a whore,” Mike says. “Don’t call her that.” Mike could’ve been a one-dimensional jilted, angry man. Instead, he proves that you can be mad and not vindictive, you can be hurt but not lash out.

Meanwhile, in “Mike Anonymous,” an anonymous client who has slept with a prostitute goes to a health clinic convinced that he has HIV. When his test comes back negative, Mike Anonymous is emphatic that the results are wrong, shouting “No!” Yet it is through his despair, not his anger, that Holmes succeeds in scaring us. Is Holmes announcing that men can finally be vulnerable? I hope so.

Much of “Barbara the Slut” is just plain funny, Holmes toeing the line between mundanity and dire circumstances, love and something in between. And in a time when most women don’t truly own the word “slut,” much less claim it, the book is a rallying cry. When was the last time you read the word “slut” in a newspaper? It was probably in a story about sexual harassment and in reference to an insult. In our culture, that is what it means. But, as Holmes’s Barbara quickly figures out, “slut” is only a word. And Holmes’s collection dares us to treat it that way: in the pages of her book and beyond.

 

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