The title of Monica Drake’s second novel, The Stud Book, suggests something along the lines of last week’s ‘Oil up, rigs out’ episode of The Bachelorette. Here’s a reminder:
However, it’s anything but. The title is literal – a stud book is a breed registry of animals. The novel is rooted in biology and explores themes of mating and motherhood via a group of friends, who all find themselves at different points on the ‘breeding cycle’.
“There were 250,000 people born every day, in the time it took McDonald’s to sell four million burgers, both a disgusting production line. Dulcet was right: humanity was a disease, maybe a mental illness with physical manifestations, but still Sarah was ready to bring it on.”
The story is set in Portland, Oregon – Sarah studies animal behaviour at the zoo (hence the stud book) and has just had her fourth miscarriage. Georgie is busy with a newborn, Dulcet teaches sex-ed to high-school students, and Nyla is battling with her teenage daughter.
Drake uses her characters and descriptions of the mating habits of various animal species to illustrate the emotional investment involved in human breeding. While ‘survival of the fittest’ rules the animal kingdom, it’s not so for humans –
“This is what separates humans from animals: free will.”
The Stud Book is billed as a ‘sharp-edged satire’ – I didn’t find it particularly funny. The humour wasn’t pointed enough to take it to its satirical limit – while I understood Drake’s inclusion of herbal postpartum vaginal steam baths; a baby-shower cake shaped like a woman’s body, complete with a plastic baby floating in amniotic fluid made of clear jelly; and Sarah browsing temporary workers as if they were a living stud book, it lacked consistency. Furthermore, various (unnecessary) sub-plots skewed the focus and took away any edge established with snarky steam baths. The conclusion (or lack thereof) really let the book down and again, this can be attributed to too many story-threads for too many characters.
“The zoo was a place for endangered species to fuck in safety. Her job was to watch babies, hoping to see animals make more babies. She was a barren voyeur, a babysitter.”
But I enjoyed the bits about the zoo and for the most part, Drake’s analogies were well-placed –
“A lek is the place where male animals gather to fight and preen, to establish a hierarchy and attract mates. It’s a team sport, all competition and cooperation: The alpha male might score the best breeding rights, but the group brought females around, increasing the reproductive odds for the species as a whole. In a species on its way to extinction, without enough males to form a lek, females don’t even know where to look. It’s like a town without a good bar.”
2.5/5 There’s probably a lot to learn from animals…
I received my copy of The Stud Book from the publisher, Hogarth, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
There’s a scene where the women are eating little sandwiches and toasting the arrival of Georgie’s baby, when Sarah mistakes something on her arm for Dijonnaise. She licks it. It was not Dijonnaise. It was baby poo.