Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The stories in Stephanie Vaughn’s Sweet Talk all have young women at their centers and are presented in the realistic mode. In the stories that have Gemma as their central character, the narrative is in the first person, as it is also in “Other Women,” whose central character is named Angelina. Third-person narration is used in “The Architecture of California” and “Snow Angel,” which are centered on characters named Megan and Marguerite. The stories are straightforward narratives, although some of Gemma’s are clearly written from a later perspective. Devices such as flashbacks, fantasies, dreams, or time shifts are not used. The overall impression given by most of the stories is of emotional moments seen from a distance; the emotions are real and affecting, but with an important exception, they are not immediate.

The first and last stories in the volume, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” and “Dog Heaven,” are reminiscences of youth told from the perspective of adulthood; both concern a time when Gemma was twelve years old and the family lived on an Army post near Niagara Falls, New York. The other Gemma stories—“My Mother Breathing Light,” “Kid MacArthur,” and “The Battle of Fallen Timbers”—are primarily concerned with her relationships with other members of her family. The stories “Sweet Talk” and “We’re on TV in the Universe” have as narrators unnamed young women who might be Gemma. These relationships are drawn with a subtlety which is the most impressive aspect of Vaughn’s writing. Especially in “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” and “Kid MacArthur,” Gemma’s resentment...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Sweet Talk Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The stories in Sweet Talk are not feminist in any doctrinaire sense. They do, however, provide a consistent sense of the struggle that a young woman faces in a world dominated by masculine values, and the relationship between Gemma and her father may be regarded as a paradigm of the complexities of that situation. The love she has for her father, most obvious in her memory of watching him on the day that his career fell apart, is very real, but it does not offset the fact that at every stage she is intent on subverting the code that he is trying to impose on her. Her mother’s subservience is a reminder of what a woman’s life may become if she fails to resist, but resistance may not always be possible.

It is true that MacArthur probably suffers more than does Gemma from the long-term effects of their father’s impositions, but the stories that are not part of the chronicle of Gemma’s family help demonstrate that a persistent subject of Sweet Talk is women’s subordinate position. The wife in the title story shares her husband’s poverty, but it is she who must try to retaliate for the man’s infidelity and who makes the effort to try to define their situation and try for a reconciliation. Similarly, Angelina in “Other Women” is the victim of her lover’s failure to be faithful either to her or to his estranged wife; in “The Architecture of California,” both Megan and her friend Vera are in a sense the victims of the husband. The women in these stories are, with few exceptions, spirited in their resistance, but that resistance is not always successful.

Sweet Talk Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Henken, Joshua. “The Facets of Gemma.” Mother Jones 15 (February/March, 1990): 42. Of the many flattering reviews of Sweet Talk, this is among the most perceptive and least pretentious.

Palmer, Paulina. Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Narrative Practice and Feminist Theory. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. This study of practice and theory in the works of a number of women writers insists on the significance of contemporaries and provides an instructive background for reading Vaughn’s stories.

Vaughn, Stephanie. Interview by Hillel Italieo. Associated Press Interviews, March 23-25, 1990. The only published interview with Vaughn, this article contains her comments on the process of writing and some information about how stories take shape in her mind. She finds that many stories create their own endings.

Yaeger, Patricia, and Beth Kowalski-Wallace. Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. This study of fictional interactions between fathers and daughters provides considerable information on one of the central themes of Vaughn’s stories, examining how the theme has been used in the fiction of other contemporary women.