Normally I wouldn’t start a review right off the bat with a content warning, but in this case I think it’s necessary. Vignettes includes several subjects that could be deal-breakers for many readers, so better to get those out in the open first. For one thing, one of the stories (“Eliza and Violet (and Sandy)”) describes (though it is mostly in the past) a mentally and physically abusive relationship, one that leaves the protagonist with a permanent injury. It also describes intense BDSM, both inside and outside of that relationship. There is also incest in this collection, including attraction between half-sisters, a stepsister and stepbrother (he calls her “little girl” and “baby girl”), and between a teenager and his biological father.
Which brings us to what I most want to warn about: the age gap relationships and underage sex scenes in this book. This collection includes an erotica story between teenagers (“Victoria and Wen”), a sexual relationship between a teenager and his biological father (he did not raise him), as well as many off-hand references to large age gaps and/or underage sexual partners. These are not generally critiqued or presented as being immoral. Even in stories that don’t focus on these relationships, they often mention a side character’s “very young lover” or “Marge’s latest boy-toy, some kid who is inappropriately young for her and who she likes for precisely that reason.” I asked the author about her choice to include these stories, and this is her response:
The choice to include a wide range of stories, stems from, not only the chance to explore some of my own personal experiences during my time at a private boarding school, but from the desire to push the boundaries and explore different sides of human emotion, and the choices people may make during confusing times, regardless of codes of conduct that would prevail in different circumstances, always in the hope of inspiring thought, and never wanting to offend.
The content warning would suggest that the collection is an exercise in risqué subject matter—that is a selection of taboo erotica. Although there are several stories that fit into that, it doesn’t define Vignettes. Instead, it is an eclectic grab bag of erotica (both tame and “boundary-pushing”), literary short stories, and a few Fantasy short stories.
The strength of the collection is in the characters and their interactions. Despite only having a small space to work with (none of the stories are novella-length), the main characters quickly feel rounded and compelling. Though their personalities differ greatly, I was invested in each of their stories, from the middle-aged lesbian married couple just trying to survive a hot and sticky summer, to the artist and her frenemy battling between attraction and disdain.
Part of what made these characters feel real to me was the complicated family dynamics that often accompanied them. Even when a character’s family was not at the center of a story, they were given enough detail—enough quirks and dysfunction and depth—to feel familiar and relateable. Whether that family is a mother who’s impossible to please, a friend’s family who has basically adopted you, or a selection of long-time friends who have become a stable point of contact, they position the character in a way that makes them more nuanced.
It’s these dynamics between the characters in each story that makes them sing. Kamila and Regina, two people who have somewhat reluctantly become friends on a foundation of cutting remarks and distrust, have a satisfying tension that inevitably flares into heat. Though the situations vary, these interactions are reliably compelling. In a collection that favors erotica heavily, that chemistry is essential.
Unfortunately, Vignettes does suffer from a few flaws that dragged it down for me. For one, it felt like it could be greatly improved with a good editor. There is some awkward phrasing, typos, and pacing issues, as well dialogue that reads as being much more juvenile than the characters.
Beyond that, I think the fatal flaw of Vignettes is suggested by the title: there is no cohesion to this collection. Some of the stories seems to be straining to be novels. “Kamila and Regina” tries to pack so much exposition in—filling in backstory and skipping oddly through time—that it feels like it could easily be expanded into a smoother novel, especially with the strong chemistry between the two characters. And I am sure that many Lesbrary readers would jump on a lesbian werewolf hunters novel (or series!) But these are interspersed with short erotica stories and a sprinkling of incest and pedophilia. I can imagine there is a market for a collection that is uncomfortable and taboo, but it’s hard to imagine the audience for this collection as-is. Right now, it feels like a lot of different things shoved together, where I think it would be strongest separated out and refined as each individual piece. If this was a few novels (or novellas), or a literary short story collection, or an erotica collection, or a selection of taboo vignettes, I could recommend them to the audiences that would appreciate each one. But I am not sure how to recommend a book that attempts to do all of these at once.
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