Ever fantasize about seeing a lover again? In these scenarios you’re likely dressed to kill, looking as gorgeous and slim as you ever have; your hair is perfectly arranged, smile dazzling. The ex-boyfriend catches you mid-laugh as you hang on the arm of your handsome new guy (a doctor or pilot or scientist, natch), who delights the crowd with his fourth hilarious story of the evening. An your old guy? He’s just another worn-out shoe. You remember loving it once, but in a distant way. And anyway, you’ve found a better replacement.
Now imagine seeing an ex-boyfriend again . . . with all your former lovers. Not in a singular, crystallized moment — and not when you’re looking your best. When you’re on a desert island, left wondering how you could have ended up stranded with every punk you ever dated. The men are lined up before you: the tall ones; the short ones; the ones who couldn’t keep a job. The female friend with whom you were planning to vacation is on the island, too, with her former flames vying for her attention. But yours? Well, they’re as lackluster as ever. Only the one you never really had — the one you desperately wanted, but couldn’t make work — seems interested. And you’re not sure you want to go down that road.
Thus begins Stacy Bierlein’s A Vacation On The Island of Ex-Boyfriends, a collection of unrelated short stories detailing many women’s struggles to find, keep, steal or forget love. There’s romantic love, familial love, the love of a mother for her child. The love between lovers; the love between a daughter and her father. It’s all here in varying shades, catapulted between different cities and countries. Between a bevy of characters who are all searching, desperately searching, for something.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this book. It had a promising start, with the titular story probably being my favorite in the set — I mean, who doesn’t love the idea of an island filled with ex-boyfriends? (Not that that would be so great in real life — but, you know.) Some stories are first-person accounts — and I tended to like those best. Having a theatre background meant I read those like monologues, picturing a single woman speaking against a dark backdrop. With a spotlight. And that worked for me.
On the whole, though, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to keep reading. Some stories were shorter than others, and my attention ping-ponged as I continued. One reviewer notes the tidy lack of a beginning, middle and end to each individual work, and I agree. Overall, I finished feeling rather unsatisfied — like something was missing. I wanted a little closure, I guess. And that didn’t happen.
Though the lighthearted cover only begins to hint at romantic discord, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends is definitely more in the literary fiction camp. Bierlein’s writing is fluid and her descriptions evocative, but the short story format didn’t really work for me. I think I would enjoy reading a full-length book by her — and possibly continue on with some of the characters she introduces, especially the dot artist in Chicago. But as a whole, I wasn’t emotionally involved. It felt incomplete.
3 out of 5!