Sex in Monica Drake's second novel, The Stud Book, is practically an afterthought, the Godot that influences the action with its nonattendance. People talk about it, and obsess over it, and even dedicate their lives to it, but sex doesn't make much of an appearance. Instead, the circle of friends who make up The Stud Book's cast live in the shadow of sex's more-serious, less-understood sister, fertility. It's a subtle distinction but an important one.
The Stud Book is a comedy of manners about a group of Portland women who don't gossip about one-night stands over cosmos. Instead, they're all interested, in one way or another, in the production and rearing of babies. Her heart broken after a string of miscarriages, Sarah works at the zoo, trying to understand why certain animals, in the refutation of one of life's most primal urges, simply refuse to mate. Georgie is a new mother. Dulcet teaches sex education to kids by wearing a tight vinyl suit with realistic models of her internal organs affixed to the front. Nyla's teenage daughter is on the cusp becoming a sexually active adult.
They're always having conversations like this one, which begins on the way to meet Georgie's new child:
"Babies are parasites."
Nyla said, "We all start out as babies."
"All parasites." Dulcet pulled a lighter out of her bag. "I hope she doesn't make me hold it. If I wanted to hold a baby, I wouldn't have had that eighth-grade abortion."
"Or sophomore year," Nyla said.
"That one, too... Thank God—or Satan, or the Great Teutonic Dawn Goddess of Fertility or whatever—there's a total surplus of babies. My baby making skills aren't needed."
This is not some Hollywood idealization of reproduction, in which healthy, clean 6-month-old babies are pulled by "doctors" from between the skinny thighs of actresses. The fertility in The Stud Book is lumpen and sopping with disgusting fluids, and it smells funny. These women are marked with fertility's scars, both figurative and literal: When one of them strips off her clothes and looks down, she sees a "soft stomach and pale thighs" with "a red grin along the top of her pubic bone." They understand that there's nothing selfless about parenthood, that reproduction is about "the survival of biological offspring. The rest of the population is competition... the other humans, the ones who burned through fossil fuels, jammed the express lane at the grocery store, faked their way through the carpool lanes, and pissed in the communal well? They could screw themselves."
The Stud Book is often funny and always stridently unsentimental; every turn of the page is accompanied by a hot gust of honesty to the face. And if the climax feels like an unsatisfying way to say good-bye to the selfish, witty, willful women we've fallen in love with along the way? Well. Reproduction, by definition, has never been great with endings.