In Monica Drake’s unconventional, satirical second novel, The Stud Book, four longtime female friends grapple with the meaning of motherhood, relationships and their lives. Sarah studies animal behavior at the Oregon Zoo, fascinated by how and why animals mate and reproduce. She longs to have a baby of her own, but after three miscarriages, she’s not sure her dream will ever come true. She is (not so) quietly envious of her friends Georgie, who just had her first baby, and Nyla, who already has two children. Rounding out the group is Dulcet, a free spirit more interested in teaching high school students how not to get pregnant with a radical sex-ed presentation than in planning for a family. While these women are in their late 30s and early 40s, none of them have life quite figured out.

Drake probes the nuances of human relationships—mothers and children, husbands and wives, and circles of friends. Much is brewing just under the surface. Sarah will do almost anything to have a baby. Georgie loves her newborn daughter, but her husband is a drunk. Nyla thinks she is managing quite well as a single mother, but her teenage daughter is hiding some dangerous secrets. And while she’s satisfied in her work, Dulcet only seems to find true relief in prescription pills. Set in progressive Portland, Oregon, The Stud Book is a study in happiness (or the lack thereof) and the perils of wanting what we don’t—and maybe can’t—have.

One part comedy, two parts tragedy and three parts honest truth, The Stud Book is a wild ride full of dark humor—after all, Drake’s first novel, Clown Girl, had an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk. It’s a story of choices made and not made, human biology, and the bonds of family and friendship. Drake reminds us that we aren’t so different from our animal ancestors: Many of our desires are, and have always been, primal. What we choose to do with those desires, well, that’s what makes us human.

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