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'Barbara' Is Imperfect, Defiant And Wonderfully Human

There's something meaningful, almost defiant, about the title of Lauren Holmes' debut, Barbara the Slut and Other People. It's not the first part, either; while the word "slut" is still frequently used as a term of abuse, it has lost some of the power to shock that it had a few decades ago. It's the final few words — "and other people," not "and other stories," which is the usual naming convention for short story collections.

It is, almost certainly, deliberate. Perhaps Holmes chose the title to remind us that every one of us is human, behind the cruel nicknames and slurs that people throw around so carelessly. And perhaps it's an indication that Holmes wants us to see her characters as more than words on a page. Either way, the title succeeds — the characters in this fascinating collection are fully, sometimes exasperatingly real, portrayed by a young writer with a great deal of charm and not a hint of pretension.

The collection starts with "How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?," about Lala, a young woman who travels to Mexico to tell her mother that she's a lesbian. She doesn't know what to expect, but when she finally gathers the nerve to make her revelation, her mother reacts with just a raised eyebrow. "I waited for her to say something and then I decided to help her because I didn't want to be mad at her," Lala reflects. "'Now you're supposed to say that you love me no matter what,' I said. 'Oh, baby,' she said, 'of course I love you no matter what.'"

It's both a climax and an anticlimax, and it's heartbreaking precisely because it's so realistic. There's no unnecessary drama, no long, heartfelt speeches, just a mother and daughter who aren't quite sure how to communicate with each other, not even totally sure of the feelings behind the words they find so difficult to use.

Holmes is preternaturally gifted at humor, which is on display in "Weekend with Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy." Jason, a somewhat rootless young man, reunites with his longtime friend Beth when she spends time at the apartment he shares with his sister, Kelly, and her dog, Muscle. (Jason knows Muscle by a different name: "I preferred to call him Pammy ... because Muscle was a stupid name for a dog.") It doesn't take long for Jason to become annoyed with his friend, who's something of a stranger to the concept of cleanliness: "She did dishes like she was blind and also had no fingers." The story ends without much happening, which is likely the point — the characters flail about blindly, they wander, unsure how they're supposed to be living their lives.

There's also a lot to laugh at in "I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have To," about a young woman desperate to break up with her boyfriend en route to her family's vacation spot in North Carolina. She's waylaid by car troubles, and forced to spend time with her stoner brother and a 12-year-old boy named Dylan, whose "only hobbies were whining and watching anime." And Holmes finds both humor and heartbreak in "My Humans," a story told from the point of view of a dog who's just been adopted by a troubled couple. It's a concept that really shouldn't work, but somehow, Holmes pulls it off.

There isn't a bad part of Barbara the Slut, but the title story is the book's centerpiece. Barbara is a high school senior who's just been accepted to Princeton, but is tormented by bullies who mock her brother for his autism, and her for what they perceive as her promiscuity. "If I heard of a Barbara the Slut, I would think she was nerdy because her name was Barbara," the girl reflects, "and that she wasn't pretty enough to be popular, so she decided to be a slut instead." It's a heartbreaking story that ends on a beautiful, but not forced, note of something like triumph.

Barbara is a lot like Holmes' other characters — both hard to know and instantly familiar, wondering how to belong, wondering whether they even want to belong in the first place. The stories in this book are sometimes painful, sometimes brilliantly funny, and most often both; Holmes can find the humor in the worst situations, and the tragedy in the most glorious moments. But it's her characters that carry the stories — imperfect, difficult and defiantly human. In other words, they're people. Just like us.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.