Imagine you alight on the shores of your vacation destination. As you wave good-bye to the ferry, your only connection to the normal world, you unexpectedly find yourself face-to-face with all of your past lovers. Their sole purpose for being there is to serve you, to house you, to feed you, to recreate with you. Is this your fantasy or your nightmare?
The title story, “A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends” opens Stacy Bierlein’s debut linked story collection about women and men in relationship, the break-ups and the hooks up, the humor and the humiliation. The poignancy of the “what-if” scenario–what if you found yourself stranded on a deserted island with all of your ex-boyfriends–sets the stage for each of the thirteen shorts that follow, stories of loss, how joining and then leaving impacts the whole of a person, and the irony of how the ones we loved in the past are never truly gone for good.
The day the ferry left us at this so-called paradise, it looked deserted, until we saw them, lined up in chronological order. Holy fuck, we said, at the same time. What the hell, we said…I caught my breath and said, Can I vote them off, one at a time?
Many of the stories diverge from convention to explore male/female relationships. “Where It Starts,” begins with the most current scene and moves progressively backwards to a time when two lovers meet. Due to a reversed linear narrative structure the reader finds out about a post break-up reunion before finding out what prompted the break-up, a break-up that in the narrative is told before the initial hook-up that is told in the final section. For fun, I re-read this story starting with the last section first. Reading the story in either direction works to tell the whole story, so that if the story had ended with the last line of the first section, it would create a satisfying ending.
“Ten Reasons Not to Sleep with a Poet” is a list story told in second person future tense. In compact prose, we come to know a character’s interior heartache through the one-step-removed lens of how she views her poet lover.
8. Like other kinds of men, he will never understand the anguish of carrying a phone that does not ring. Unlike other kinds of men, he will seem to fall off the planet for weeks at a time, lost in a place–that goddamned place you know to be a space in his head and not an actual location.
But not all of the stories are about single women struggling for true love. In “Two Girls”, Tira and Paige glibly compare notes about their extramarital lovers while spending a girls’ only weekend, aware that the affairs threaten the women’s near perfect lives.
Tira and Paige have bright careers, new homes, want babies.
They understand how lucky they’ve been, recognize the horrors they avoided, the abuses, disorders, and addictions that have cursed too many of their peers. They’ve suffered losses and come out okay, so they know they should not mess things up. They feel this knowledge like a chill deep in their spine on a freezing cold night.
The final scene places Tira and Paige in a horrifying situation. Yet Bierlan leaves the decision up to the reader as to how the two will live their lives from that day forward. “They do not leave until the police officers pull them away, until the chaos around them blurs.”
Two of the stories are not about lovers. “Luxor” recounts a terrorist scene at an Egyptian temple in which a woman who longs for a lost child of her own protects a five-year-old girl separated from her parents against gunmen crossfire. “All I can think of is shelter her.” And, later, “In front of this temple, I thought of the child I wanted to have, and not the men with whom I tried.” In “Men’s Furnishings” a married couple with a newborn struggle to survive the sleepless nights. The mother falls more and more in love with her baby, while the father indulges a shopping addiction. “Three Naked Men” is about a widow and her teenage daughter coping with their loss.
Whether stories revolve around lost lovers or other tragedies, the linking theme among them is the resilience in women who confront choice and emotional casualties in the only way they know how, by saving the only life they can save.
Jodi Paloni earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and writes in the viredescent woodland of Vermont.