‘Sweet Talk’ by Stephanie Vaughn

Sweet Talk by Stephanie Vaughn, 1979

The magic trick:

Telling the reader in the first sentence what the story will be about

In all the reading and connecting of dots I have done for this blog, Stephanie Vaughn’s name seems to keep coming up. I gather that her Sweet Talk story collection was a pretty big deal when it came out in 1990. Here, people who say such things said, is one of America’s next great writers. Weird thing is, 25 years later it remains the only book she’s published. She’s not exactly a recluse along the lines of J.D. Salinger. She teaches at Cornell. But still, hers is a very intriguing career arc. I figured I had to look into Sweet Talk and see what it was all about.

My verdict? It’s really, really good. She has a way of hitting just the right pitch so that her first-person narrations never feel overly self-loving or self-loathing. The moments she chooses to isolate and highlight are never extraneous. Every sentence seems to add up to a larger set of ideas or questions. But I better stop now. I won’t have anything left to say the rest of the week.

Let’s start with the title story. It’s actually probably my least favorite in the book (though I still enjoyed it). First-person stories of modern relationship woes are getting increasingly difficult for me to care about as I get more literate. That being said, I love the notion of the narrator inventing in her imagination a lover for herself – and possibly making up one for her husband too.

The key trick to the story is the first sentence: “Sometimes Sam and I loved each other more when we were angry.” Vaughn has told us right off the top what the whole story will be about. She then proceeds to prove this statement’s truth through the action of the rest of the story. Our couple argues and competes and competes and loves and competes some more. Is it healthy? Is it built to last? Well, probably not on both counts. But it is the nature of their marriage, and “Sweet Talk” tells their story well. And that’s quite a trick on Vaughn’s part. 

The selection:

In the second week of August, I found a pair of red lace panties at the bottom of the kitchen trash.

I decided to tell Sam I had a lover. I made my lover into a tall, blue-eyed blond, a tennis player on the circuit, a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford who had offers from the movies. It was the tall blond part that needled Sam, who was dark and stocky.

“Did you pick him up at the beach?” Sam said.

“Stop it,” I said, knowing it was a sure way to get him to ask more questions.


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