Tierney reviews Turning for Home by Caren J. Werlinger

It’s hard to summarize the plot of Turning for Home, chiefly because it’s kind of a hodgepodge of happenings without much tying them together beyond the fact that they are centered around a single main character – but I will try. *spoilers ahead, throughout this whole review*

Jules returns to the small Ohio town in which she grew up with her grandparents for her grandfather’s funeral. While there, a local lesbian teen writes her a note asking for her help as she comes to terms with her sexuality in this unsympathetic environment. After the funeral, Jules comes home to her partner Kelli, who feels like Jules is pulling away from her, as she did in her past relationships. Meanwhile, Jules engages in an odd flirtation with a fellow educator, while also counseling Ronnie, the teen from her hometown–and simultaneously hiding all of this from Kelli. Also, Kelli’s mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as if all the rest weren’t enough drama. Throughout it all there are flashbacks to Jules’ childhood–her experiences with her strict grandmother and loving grandfather, who raised her after her mother left her with them, and her friendship with a neighbor boy that ended his tragic death, for which she blames herself, and whose ensuing emotions she has totally repressed well into adulthood. Needless to say, there is a lot going on. All of which is resolved by the end of the novel, in ways that don’t necessarily satisfy–or even make sense (for example, Ronnie is kicked out by her family because of her sexuality and ends up moving in with the mother of Jules’s dead childhood friend… which just seems weird to me).

Unfortunately, I was just not a fan of Turning for Home: the plot was way too busy, and, conversely, most of the characters didn’t really have well-developed personalities, beyond the fact that all manner of things kept happening to them, making it difficult to connect and sympathize with them. There are so many miscellaneous plot points thrown at the reader: drama with Jules’s past and with her present, drama with Kelli’s family, drama with Ronnie, drama with their friend Donna (who is also Jules’s ex) and her relationship–but ultimately I couldn’t bring myself to care about very much of it. The characters felt flat: Kelli doesn’t have much of a personality beyond loving Jules (even though Jules doesn’t seem to do much to deserve it), and Jules doesn’t have much of a personality beyond having a tragic past and being a jerk to Kelli because she is incapable of working through her own emotional issues (despite the fact that she is a school psychologist!). Right up until the end of the book, Jules is making decisions that just plain don’t make sense, and Kelly is hand-holding her through the process of being a mature adult who owns up to their emotions and decisions. It’s convoluted and not particularly engaging for the reader.

Turning for Home just wasn’t for me–but if the plotlines I’ve described sound appealing to you, go ahead and give it a try. I’m going to stick with other works by Caren J. Werlinger, like Cast Me Gently, which I very much enjoyed–it read like Annie on My Mind for grown-ups, thanks to its 1980s aesthetic and gently lovable characters.

Lena reviews In This Small Spot by Caren J. Werlinger

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While it’s clear that In this Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger’s abbey epic, is a love story, it is ultimately a book about excess and restraint.  The story’s arc is massive, sprawling across five years and numerous memories.  It’s a lengthy commitment, but luckily the prose moves along at a nice pace.  Werlinger has a good sense of when to summarize and when to linger in a scene.

Within the expanse of the story, Werlinger has created a world so thoroughly fleshed out that at times it’s a little overwhelming.  The plot follows Mickey, a successful surgeon who decides to give up her practice and teaching position to become a nun at St. Bridget’s Abby.  What follows is not only an incredibly detailed account of Mickey’s journey but of the entire abbey itself.  The book overflows with characters and while they are all interesting and many do contribute to the plot, some of them felt like they needed their own separate books.

During her time as a postulant, Mickey meets the imposing Sister Anselma who becomes her mentor.  With her help, Mickey starts to process the guilt she feels over her partner’s death and her place within the world of the abbey.  The two grow closer and begin to fall in love, despite their religious vows and obligations.  Their relationship is one of extreme restraint as they attempt to deny their feelings for each other and navigate the theological dilemma of their situation.

This conflict between the restraint of the subject matter while the plot leaps and bounds around it feels like the book’s true strength.  The balance between the characters’ careful negotiation of their relationship while other drama rages around them makes the moments they do find together all the more powerful.  Unfortunately Werlinger can’t quite sustain it and in the end her careful building succumbs to the excess of plot and this reader, for one, just wished the characters could have been left at a quiet moment and allowed to rest.

Katie reviews Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger

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Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger was an utterly engaging read. I was captivated from the first page and could scarcely put it down. It’s an intriguing mix of mystery, ghost story, love story, and social commentary, and Werlinger melds all of these together to create a cohesive and compelling story.

When the story opens, it seems like there are two separate plotlines. In the first, Caitríona Ní Faolain and her older sister – two young Irish women in the 1850s – are sold by their father to the English owner of an American plantation in exchange for land to help feed their starving family. In the second, set in the late 1960s, Connemara Mitchell and her family move to their mother’s ancestral home in West Virginia when her father goes MIA in Vietnam. The focus shifts back and forth between these two seemingly unrelated stories until it becomes apparent that Conn is in fact Caitríona’s descendent and is dreaming about the events of her life. Conn is only ten or eleven years old, and yet she has a unique understanding of the world that lends a maturity to her while at the same time coming into conflict with her natural immaturity. As she explores her new house, she happens upon secrets – hidden passageways, lost diaries – that begin to intertwine with her dreams and compel her unravel the mystery. The more she learns, the more she realizes how vitally important it is for her to find out what happened to Caitríona and her family and prevent it from happening again.

I’m not sure if this was meant to be a children’s book or young adult book (going strictly by the age of the protagonist, I guess it was) but it definitely tackled lots of difficult topics in a way that I feel would be understandable and helpful to younger people. There were so many things at work in the story: spousal abuse, child abuse, poverty, war and its effects on the families of soldiers, prejudice. Racism was the most prominent of these issues. Conn and her family became friends with a black teacher-turned-carpenter, Abraham, who helped them upgrade their house, and the 1968 plotline focused just as much on the bigotry, hatred, and violence he was put through as on the mystery of Caitríona’s fate. Conn and her family were shunned as well for being friendly with him, and the slowly changing times were illustrated through a local white boy who grew to respect and admire Abraham over the course of the story.

I thought that the message of love and respect was an important one, and it would be relatable for white children reading this, but at the same time, I was a little uncomfortable about the saintly light Conn and her family were shown in by virtue of their treatment of Abraham. I felt like the story fell into a trap of “enlightened white family arrives in backwater southern town and effortlessly changes public opinion by treating the black citizens like human beings”. Abraham was a complex and likable character, but he was never given the chance to stand up for himself, and it was always Conn or her mother who rescued him – whether that meant verbally defending him, instituting a boycott against a storekeeper who refused to serve him, or literally saving his life. As a white girl born in the 80s, I can’t have any idea what it was like to be a person of color in the 60s (or any time), but it felt very disempowering for the white characters in this book to always be the saviors.

Miserere was largely a mystery with strong social commentary, but it was also a romance. Since I got this review copy from the Lesbrary, I was waiting eagerly for the lesbians to show up – and the lesbian content was very well done and gently hinted at before being fully revealed. Caitríona fell in love with Hannah, a black slave who lived on the same plantation, and Hannah was the key to the mystery. One of the reasons Conn is able to break her family’s curse is because she is the first person in the family to be able to understand Caitríona’s feelings for Hannah. Although she’s not old enough yet to be particularly interested in romance, she knows – especially once she experiences Caitríona’s feelings through her dreams – that she’ll fall in love with a woman someday herself. It was comforting to read a story where the lesbian romance was not the focus. It was at the heart of the story, the driving force behind Caitríona’s actions, but it wasn’t treated as a novelty or peculiarity. I hope that more books continue to be written along that line – where being a lesbian is an important part of a character, but not overwhelming her personality to the exclusion of all else. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of writing in Miserere and by the streamlined, well-constructed plot.

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews Looking Through Windows by Caren Werlinger

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Reading romance novels is bad for you. I read that in graduate school. Actually, I read a whole book to that effect. (Don’t worry. I love the genre. This isn’t a polemic.) To be fair, the study I read looked at heterosexual women. Nonetheless, one can draw some comparisons.

The classic romance novel pairs two flawlessly beautiful people in an exotic setting where, despite the fact that they are ostensibly wrong for each other, they have sex so fantastic it changes the PH of their blood. They get up in each other’s business starting on page twenty, then enjoy 300 pages of erotic courtship in which no one ever has to clean the sink trap, go to the doctor, or figure out what the cat has disemboweled on the back porch.   No wonder readers’ lives pale by comparison.

Until now.

Looking Through Windows by Caren Werlinger tells the story of Emily, a young teaching assistant grieving the death of her girlfriend, and Ann, a Peace Corp volunteer, finally back in the United States and wondering why heterosexual relationships leave her unfulfilled. The story charts their blossoming friendship and love and the challenges placed in the way of their relationship.

I knew Looking Through Windows was not going to be a standard romance when Ann and Emily admit their mutual attraction and then decide not to act on it because neither of them is emotionally ready.

What? No! I thought. They are supposed to melt into a pool of viscous lust, not make an emotionally intelligent choice that honors their friendship and supports the possibility of a deeper, healthier relationship in the future.

Therein lies the strength of Werlinger’s book.  This isn’t escapist fiction. This is a realistic portrayal of – surprise! – mature love. This is not to say the book is without drama. Actually, it has a lot more than I expected given the leisurely pace of the first half of the story.

[spoiler, highlight to read] When Emily loses Ann (temporarily) and then loses her leg to cancer, my heart wrenched. When Ann sees Emily in the hospital – emaciated from chemo, bald, amputated, and vomiting in a basin – there is no way to mistake this for a Harlequin Romance. That’s a good thing. [end spoiler]

Unlike the classic romance that – studies show – leaves the reader wondering why don’t I live in Barbados and have abs like sculpted granite? Looking Through Windows will make the reader appreciate the things that truly make for good relationships. I  finished the book and hugged my wife, thankful for our beautiful life that does not happen in Barbados and does involve cleaning the sink trap and identifying the bottom half of whatever it was the cat killed on the porch. Two thumbs up!

Now, I wouldn’t be true to my profession, if I did not offer a little constructive criticism. Perhaps because Werlinger’s book was a realistic portrait of life, not a fantasy, some parts move slowly. Unlike the average romance, the heroines in Looking Through Windows have jobs, exams, friends, families, landlords, chores, and conversations with people who are only tangentially related to the romantic storyline. On the flip side, when tragedy strikes, it strikes quickly and unexpectedly (rather like it does in real life), giving the second half of the book a much different feel than the first.

Incidentally, one of the really nice features of this book is the cast of sympathetic supporting characters. There are bad guys, but there are also a lot of kind people who try their best. It makes Looking Through Windows a very hopeful story, even as it deals with some difficult themes.

If you are looking for the quintessential romance novel, complete with butch-femme sports-bodice ripping, this is not it. If you are looking for a good drama that makes you hold your own loved ones a little closer, I recommend Looking Through Windows.  Buy it for that friend who is always messing up her love life. There is a lot to learn here.

I am also pleased to report that Caren Werlinger’s long anticipated novel In This Small Spot is soon to be released by Corgyn Publishing.  I look forward to following Werlinger’s career as she definitely has a lot to offer the lesbian community.

By Karelia Stetz-Waters
www.kareliastetzwaters.com