The Brutal Language of Love consists of nine short stories, all with female protagonists who are disturbingly flawed, vulnerable, and real. My primary experience of reading these stories was very similar to my experience of watching the movie Towelhead--they made me uncomfortable. The very first story begins with, "Beatrice told Shipley she would sleep with him, and then she passed out. When she awoke the next morning, he said he'd gone ahead without her. He got dressed and asked her to drive him to the police station so he could turn himself in for rape, but she said not to worry about it." I was still caught up in all the action of this revelatory half-paragraph: disturbed by the situation; wondering how Beatrice really felt; wanting to know what Shipley was really thinking. But Erian was already moving on to other important relationships in Beatrice's life. I often felt like I was playing catch-up, not emotionally able to digest and understand everything that was happening so fast on the page.
When Erian hit on something in her stories that I could personally relate to, it was often so blunt and honest that I had to catch my breath. However, in situations farther from my personal experience, I sometimes had problems understanding the characters' motivations. This did not lesson my interest or the impact of the story, but was probably an effect of her writing style. The world 'brutal' in the title is perfect. The stories are brutal, their effect on me was brutal, and Erian's writing is so unembellished, direct, and naked--that her writing is brutal as well. I don't think I could say that I enjoyed reading this book as it made my stomach tie up in knots more often than not, but I'm not going to forget these stories. I'm finding that the more I think about them, the more I find in them.
Now, solely for my own benefit and memory, I'm going to list them with a quick (hopefully unspoilerish) blurb, so I can revisit them again:
- "Standing Up to the Superpowers" - details Beatrice relationships with Shipley, a college Freshman and her Russian literature professor. Includes the line, "In return he offered her nothing," which I couldn't forget.
- "Alcatraz" - Roz is 13 and having a sexual relationship with Jennings while dealing with Jennings' bully friend Garrett. This is where I rediscovered that reading about 13 year olds having sex or being hit on creeps me out.
- "Bikini" - Vanessa's early relationship with her boyfriend Shawki, including his dislike of promiscuous clothes and their outing on a lake. This story had me on edge the entire second half.
- "Almonds and Cherries" - a film student with a crush on her professor and confused about her sexuality makes a movie about an incident in a fitting room. Consistently interesting, but probably the one I least understood.
- "Lass" - Shayna marries Carl, the son of a famous novelist and goes to live with his parents in Ireland. I really couldn't understand the motivations in this story, although I frustratingly felt they were right below the surface.
- "On the Occasion of my Ruination" - Very relatable story about a girl heading off to college and eager to lose her virginity while she works in the mall over the summer.
- "The Brutal Language of Love" - Another disturbing story with a character named Penny and her problematic relationships with her father, her boyfriend at the movie theater, and the man who films her for his documentary. A lot going on.
- "Still Life With Plaster" - a young girl who lives with her grandparents with her younger brother and uncle, a loving home for her that still has its lies and violence.
- "When Animals Attack" - a grown brother and sister meet a teenage runaway at a bus station because their mother had befriended him in New York and given him money to get back to him parents. Again, disturbing, and did not go where I was expecting.