My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wasn’t familiar with Stephanie Vaughn prior to hearing her story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” on the New Yorker fiction podcast. The experience was one in which I remember where I was during the story, one in which I sat in my car after the commute from the office, unable to move until the story had completed. I remember sitting there, in that car, as Gemma looked out over the icy river after her father. “I was his eldest child, and he taught me what he knew,” one of the closing lines of the story, still echoes around my head. I searched out the story that same evening, and purchased this collection simply because of it.
I think the reason that “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” caught me so by surprise, struck me so where I live, is because of the intricate, fragile relationship between father and daughter that the story portrays. I read it shortly after the birth of our daughter, and in the midst of attempting to imagine our future and the care with which I was attempting to craft my relationship with her from the beginning, this story was…shaking…to me as Vaughn so clearly painted each character through the other’s eyes.
This collection is filled with just that…moments that are familiar to each of us in some capacity, not in their setting but in their events, capturing the one through the eyes of the other. I found myself examining many of the moments through which I have already traveled, and anticipating those through which I still must, looking to the other individuals that inhabit my own narrative with fresh perspective. The events that Vaughn captures are astounding in their normalcy, familiar in their commonality. There are no moments here in which I found myself closing the book to examine what the author meant. What Vaughn is doing, and what she is doing well, is placing each of us, either retroactively or predictively, into these situations through her characters and giving us the opportunity to explore ourselves.
Vaughn is following the same cast of characters here through various settings and stages of life. I immediately equated this with Salinger’s Nine Stories, but don’t, because, while parallels are easily drawn to the approach, there is nothing nearly as metaphysical going on in Vaughn’s collection. It’s absence is in no way a detractor. Vaughn’s stories are complex but never overwhelming. The timbre of her language resonates with a uniqueness, her prose is concise but never succinct, and always original. Her wit is quick, leaving the reader with a smile but never quite laughing aloud. This is not a lengthy read at just under 200 pages, but you may find yourself spacing it out into a story per evening as I did for over a week. This is because, what I did find myself pondering after each…the relationships in my own life…was worth the time to digest.
I wasn’t aware of Vaughn prior to that podcast. I’m certainly glad that has changed. Sweet Talk is a touching and sincere addition to your shelf that you will find quite necessary.