This slim volume of short stories is subtitled “Stories of Tainted Desire.” The description is apt. Ms. Hipple's evocative prose-poems summon the sharp pain of regret, the ache for opportunities lost, the searing fire of anger and the ice of a lover's disdain. There is beauty, passion, even sweetness in these tales, but they are a far cry from the light-hearted romps so common in contemporary erotic story collections. Ms. Hipple writes from the heart -- from personal experience, I suspect. She does not shy away from darkness: cruelty, drunken self-pity, the seductive lure of suicide when one is desperate and lonely.
Bittersweet includes twenty-two brief stories. Many are no longer than two pages. In fact, few are stories in the classical sense; they offer no plot arc and no character development, though they often chronicle changes in the narrator over time. The pieces in this volume are meditations, fantasies, extended flashbacks, vivid erotic scenarios that exist solely to evoke emotion. In “Blood on Snow,” a woman descends ever deeper into submission, until at long last her lover fulfills his promise to shed her blood. “Let It Be Uncomplicated” offers a snapshot of a marriage in which sex has become a constant reproach due to the woman's inability to conceive. “I Promise I Won't Break You,” with more of a plot than most, shows how abandonment can lead to despair and then beyond, to a hardness that even the lover's return cannot shatter. In “Waiting in the Rain,” a woman spends the day fantasizing about her husband's arrival, only to have him reject her, while in “Seems Like...” a husband reprises the decades with his beloved as he gazes on her corpse.
Some stories are told from a male perspective, some from a female. The two I liked best both have F/F themes. “White Musk” illustrates the evocative power of the sense of smell. A middle-aged wife and mother, shopping for Christmas presents, catches a whiff of the perfume favored by the woman she loved in her youth and is submerged in memory. In “Mar,” a woman who lives alone by the ocean is visited by lyrical and mysterious dreams of a gorgeous female sea-creature.
Ms. Hipple's prose is sensual in the truest sense, steeped in descriptions of sight and smell, sound, texture and taste. She skillfully captures the connection between environment and emotion. Sun, wind, mist and rain mold and reflect the characters' moods. Her sex scenes are more poetic than graphic, though you'll find no euphemisms here. The flesh is filtered, always, through the prism of emotion.
On the negative side, the stories in this collection are distressingly similar in their style. Every one is narrated in the first person, often in the present tense, with the object of passion a frequently unnamed third party pronoun. The most begin with some description of the weather or the season, setting the emotional tone. As I note above, Ms. Hipple does this quite well. However, it becomes monotonous after a while. Even though the stories explore a range of situations and emotions, I found it difficult to separate them in my mind. Another initially effective device that is overused is the reprise of the title in the last paragraph of the story. After three or four tales, this starts to seem amateurish.
The book would also benefit from more extensive editing. I noticed quite a few misused words, some of which are clearly typographic errors (“chain” rather than “chair”) but others clear confusions (“travesties” instead of “trials” or “tortures”). An effective editor could also have curbed Ms. Hipple's over-fondness for run-on sentences, three or four independent clauses joined by “and”. I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of the book that perhaps was further edited before release. I do hope so; if this were my book, I would be a bit embarrassed by these mistakes.If I had encountered one of the stories in this book in the context of a typical erotica anthology, I would have been excited and impressed. Ms. Hipple explores themes and emotions not often addressed in popular erotica, with an original, sensual style. However, reading twenty-two of these stories, all in the same vein and using the same style, one after the other, tends to diminish their impact.