Drake (Clown Girl, 2006) pointedly avoids sentimentality in writing about Portland friends who approach sex and procreation with varying degrees of desire, fear and trepidation.
The central character, 38-year-old Sarah, studies animal habits, especially regarding procreation, at the Oregon Zoo; the novel’s title refers to an international record book for mandrills dealing with births, couplings and deaths. Ironically, Sarah and her less than macho husband, Ben, who works in mortgage financing and has been known to sit to pee, have been through three failed pregnancies by the first chapter, with more failures likely to come. Even if Sarah’s desire to have a baby is mostly an animal need to procreate, she can’t help feeling jealous of her best friend, Georgie, who has recently had a baby by C-section. But Georgie, who overcame her hard-core childhood to become a literary professor, is a mess—afraid to put the baby down and taking pain pills—while her husband escapes with increasing frequency to the local bar, where he plays a macabre drinking game, taking a shot every time a dead girl shows up on the TV screen. Sara and Georgie’s slightly older, widowed friend Nyla is a cartoonishly idealistic yoga instructor and environmentalist who has raised two daughters alone. While the older girl is successfully off to college (Brown no less), Nyla remains willfully oblivious about her younger daughter’s typical but dangerous adolescent crises. Nyla is also happily pregnant without a partner. Then there’s Dulcet, who has zero interest in babies and works in an anatomically correct body suit to teach sex ed when she’s not having casual sex with strangers. All the friends grew up in pre-hipster Portland, and the portrait of the city in its evolution sometimes outshines the lives of these unhappy, increasingly annoying characters.
Often sharply observed, at its best this is a comedy of manners among a very distinct subset—the not quite successful but intellectually self-superior—so the tragic and uplifting elements bunched together in the last chapters seem to come out of left field.