You know it’s fall because of the crisp air, the changing leaves, the decorative gourds, and, most importantly, because the fall issues of literary magazines are launching. This week was Virginia Quarterly Review’s turn. On Monday, its Fall 2015 issue dropped with five stories from Ann Beattie, Richard Bausch, Taylor Antrim, Praveen Krishna, and Elliott Holt.
Elliott Holt’s “Your Father Would Be Proud” is a story of sexual awakening and sexual reckoning. The story starts with an uncomfortable scene: an older dog mounting a puppy, barely in heat for the first time. It’s a memory from our protagonist Helen’s childhood. When the puppy gets pregnant from the encounter, Helen marries the two dogs in a backyard ceremony attended by her sister Phoebe and a neighbor’s dog. Handled differently, it’s a scene straight from a greeting card, but in Holt’s able hands, it’s disquieting, suggestive of the harmful morality that turns sex shameful—the perfect start to this story.
From there, the story jumps years later. Helen is in college and going home with her boyfriend Andrew to New York City for Thanksgiving, meeting his family for the first time. She’s never been to the city though she’s always imagined herself there, living a refined and elegant life uptown, with a view of Central Park. Andrew comes from money; his father’s apartment is exactly what Helen has dreamed of. She can’t sleep that first night, and when she creeps into the kitchen for a glass of water, Andrew’s father is there. He gives her red wine and asks her questions. She pretends to be sophisticated and graceful, the kind of person she wants to be. She name-drops Tolstoy. He seduces her.
“You want to know why Andrew’s mother and I were not a good match?” he whispered. “She didn’t like sex.”
This suggested, of course, that she, Helen, did like sex. Was that true? She wondered if her libido was unusually strong. She wondered if, like Phoebe, she was an object of desire. She wondered if, like her mother, she could surprise herself. She had begun to understand that her mother was a woman full of contradictions. Helen didn’t feel like a woman, though. She still thought of herself as a girl. She closed her eyes. The fucking—for it was fucking, not collegiate fumbling—was deliciously fierce. Andrew’s father put his fingers in her mouth and she bit them to keep from screaming, it was so good. She slipped back into Andrew’s bed before dawn. It was Thanksgiving Day.
The story is sexy and awkward and painful as Helen struggles with her guilt and her pleasure. She’s torn between her religious upbringing and her awakening as a sexual being, between who she wants to be—urbane, elegant—and who she is—messy, intense. She can’t pin down her identity: “She used to be a girl who prayed. A girl who could write. But now she was a woman who liked sex.” The story’s a tragedy, really, and the tragedy is that Helen never realizes that none of these identities are mutually exclusive. In the end, “Your Father Would Be Proud” is a story about the arbitrary rules and categories that trap us, about desire tainted by morality. It’s about searching for identity in a world where women are still defined by sex, are still either “good girls” or “bad girls,” where a woman can’t be more than one thing.