The dreams and decisions, responsibilities and responses of five female academics at a questionable college in Georgia.
In a sequence of linked stories concluding with the titular novella, López (The Darling, 2015, etc.) draws an empathetic, often savagely comic portrait of the struggles of working women in what might be deemed an elite profession. However, as the women learn, there is minimal prestige attached to Birnbrau Women’s College, home of the Birnbrau Surprise (more like a baffling disappointment)—known fittingly as the BS. This is an institution that sets the academic bar ultra-low, delivers suspicious food in a dining hall known as The Gag, makes punitive budget cuts, and appoints less qualified men over more qualified women. López’s spotlight is on “five newbies” whose full, often arduous existences extend well beyond the professorial. Two have active love lives: Jane Ellen Klamath in “Careful Interventions” realizes her involvement with a man her friends have dubbed “Tall Drink” (of Water) might be heading in the right direction, and Hailey Linder, in “Truffles,” has a thing going with the supervising groundskeeper. But Lucinda Aragon is an abuse survivor, Dev Grisham in “Peach State Surety” learns her female lover is slipping away, and Kerry Fujimori, in “15 Beads More,” still has nightmares about her ex-husband. López fleshes out backstories filled with problem children, overstretched days, and finances, these struggles bolstered at least in part by the women’s mutual friendship. The novella, rather long and repetitive, encapsulates several of the collection’s themes, especially the inhibiting qualities of ingrained female behavior, as the group, on an artists’ retreat, struggles with an attention-hungry member. López writes entertainingly, with fine observation, but the focuses of her criticism can sometimes seem like easy targets.
A witty, at times cutting collection.