CULTURE & ARTS
11/04/2016 03:17 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2016

What Happens When We Repress Sexual Desires? (Spoiler: It’s Not Great)

In "Virgin and Other Stories," April Ayers Lawson explores sex in the religious South.
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Sheila was waiting until marriage. Raised by parents who speak parabolically about good and evil (“Emptiness begets emptiness,” her father says, turning circular reasoning into something poetic, “Nothing begets nothing.”), she accepted the inherited ethical choice without question.

This didn’t put off her suitor, Jake, the narrator of April Ayers Lawson’s short story “Virgin,” the first in her debut collection. He didn’t bristle at the idea of Sheila’s inexperience, but he didn’t fetishize it either. That’s the power of Lawson’s storytelling; it’s psychologically poignant enough to avoid the generalizations often made about religion, chastity, and sexuality. Instead, Lawson explores a moral grey area, uncovering new possibilities for truth.

During their chaste engagement, Jake loves Sheila fully. He imagines her fondly as a gawky redheaded kid and is attracted to the woman she’s grown into. Her abstinence grants him clear-headedness in his vision of her ― a sort of purity. And he never questions her desire to have sex with him once they’ve said their vows. He’s surprised, then, on their honeymoon, when she rejects his advances, but continues to wear and shop for miniskirts and tall, black boots ― outfits that heighten his attraction. Lawson is never mean about these little hypocrisies. She seems to write to understand them.

Soon, Jake begins ― in the safer realm of his imagination ― to seek sexual solace in a co-worker whose desires and beliefs are more seamlessly aligned. Meanwhile, Sheila remains disenchanted with her new knowledge that sex isn’t always transcendent. Most of the story hangs around in this complicated space, without drawing conclusions about how either character should solve their dilemma.

Lawson brings the same subtlety to the collection’s other four stories, about youthful sexual taboo, female friendship, and failing adult relationships.

In “The Way You Must Play Always,” a girl’s parents encourage her to take piano lessons after they catch her fooling around with her cousin. Rather than whipping her into shape, the lessons introduce her to her instructor’s brother, a lonely, troubled man with a brain tumor, whose blunt affections roil her. Although she seduces him, the coupling is seen as inappropriate on the man’s part. The girl’s inappropriate desires are the result of her parent’s shaky relationship, and sexuality, here, is imagined as a complex web of innate yearnings and societal motivations.

In “Vulnerability,” a woman takes a trip to New York, a reprieve from her depressed husband, only to replace thoughts of him with interest in a man who is ostensibly different but ultimately the same underneath his sheen of sophistication.

In “Three Friends in a Hammock,” the insular world of friend-love is made literal as a trio of like-minded women neurotically contemplate who is closer with whom, whose relationship is in a better state, and other intricacies of platonic affection. During the entire story, they’re closed off from the rest of a backyard party.

A refreshing take on desires both taboo and repressed, Virgin and Other Stories is a promising debut.

The bottom line:

A subtle look at our deep, animal desires, and the moral systems that tenuously tamper them down.

Who wrote it:

This is April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection. Her stories have appeared in Vice, Granta, Oxford American, and elsewhere.

What other reviewers think:

NPR: “The audacious but vulnerable young Southerners who populate these five tales live in a world where the ordinary uncertainties of relationships and physical intimacy are amplified and distorted by their devout, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and in several cases, a history of childhood sexual abuse.”

Kirkus: “Meaty, satisfying tales of a substance that suggests Lawson would make a fine novelist.”

Opening lines:

“Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”

Notable passage:

“Gretchen again began the piece. Her fingers moved clumsily over the keys because she was also looking out the window. The weather changed so quickly. A moment ago it had been hot and still, and now the wind had picked up.”

Virgin and Other Stories
April Ayers Lawson
$23.00, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published Nov. 1, 2016

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