An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

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Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.

A Page-Turning Mess of a Queer Love Polygon: The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

the cover of The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

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If you’re looking for something fun, marathonable, the right amount of messy, and full of queer love polygon drama, then look no further than The Happy Couple. I listened to this as an audiobook (a short and snappy 5.5 hour experience) and I found myself always looking forward to my next drive or run just so I could hear what happened next. 

Celine and Luke are engaged, and their wedding date is quickly approaching, but will they go through with it? Luke is a pretty obvious serial cheater and Celine is so focused on the work of being a concert pianist that she has just ignored it. Yes, the oh so happy couple. Additional layers of drama unfold as more and more angles of their love polygon are exposed. Archie is Luke’s best man as well as Luke’s ex-lover who is definitely still in love with the groom-to-be. Celine’s ex, Maria, shows up at the engagement party and stirs the pot. Celine’s sister Phoebe knows Luke has something to hide and is convinced to get the bottom of it. And Vivian, yet another ex of Luke’s, is willing to call people on their craziness and bring some tough love to her friends in this mess.

Buckle up, folks. This cast of wild characters really brings the drama that can only be fully encapsulated by interrobangs. Luke doesn’t show up to his own engagement party?! It’s hours before the wedding and Luke needs a new shirt but who comes to switch shirts with him other than his ex-lover, Archie?! Celine’s ex is having long heart-to-hearts with Luke?! 

The Happy Couple felt like reality TV in the best way. I was immersed in this story’s twists, turns, and reveals that provided a welcome distraction when my brain needed a break from the current world. But what I loved most is that it didn’t just feel like gossip that pulls me in but at the end of the day makes me feel icky. Naoise Dolan writes her indeed flawed characters with a kindness and nuance that allowed me to see them for more than their often infuriating actions and reflect alongside them in the gray decisions they find themselves having to make. It was a delightful balance of unhinged meets kind. 

If you’re driving home for the holidays and need a book you can finish in one road trip, I highly recommend pressing play on this one!

Content warnings: toxic relationships, drug use and abuse, infidelity, suicidal thoughts

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

The Perfect Sapphic September Read: The Adult by Bronwyn Fischer 

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The moody, fraught, and atmospheric energy of Bronwyn Fischer’s novel The Adult (Random House, 2023) is the perfect September read that reflects the joy and the chaos of a new academic year! 

The Adult follows Natalie, an eighteen-year-old student who has just arrived in Toronto to begin her first year of university. Moving from her remote, rural hometown to a bustling city is destabilizing to say the least, and on top of it all everyone around her seems to fit in perfectly, while Natalie always stands apart. From the beginning of the novel, we can tell that Natalie is searching for an identity—for the exact code that will allow her to effortlessly blend into her new life without all the sharp edges she can’t seem to stop running into. She studies her would-be friends, searches online, and spends most of her time contemplating just how apart she feels from everyone else. 

Enter Nora, an older, mysterious woman who suddenly takes an interest in Natalie after a chance meeting. As Natalie is drawn further and further into Nora’s life—and into her intense, all-consuming feelings for the other woman—she wonders if this relationship contains the answers she’s been searching for. However, because Natalie fears how her friends will react to her relationship with an older woman, she quickly begins to lead a kind of double life while attempting to keep her time with Nora separate and sacred. But eventually, Natalie must reckon with the discovery that Nora is not all that she seems, and that the secrets she keeps could have devastating consequences for Natalie’s life. 

The Adult is a fabulously literary lesbian novel all about coming of age and coming out. In many ways, it’s easy to sympathize with Natalie’s insecurity and her desperation to fit into a world that seems to fast-paced and unfamiliar. We spend so much of this novel deep inside Natalie’s head, privy to her cyclical thoughts, her fears and anxieties, and her overwhelming obsession with Nora—an obsession that is made worse by Nora’s unclear feelings. It’s impossible not to find this novel immersive and captivating. 

While the plot of this novel is slow to unfold and the text is driven forward by the characters, I still found myself unable to put it down. Fischer’s writing carefully unveils the intricacies—and inconsistencies—of Nora’s life, which left me desperate to uncover (as Natalie eventually is) what all of the clues meant. It was fascinating the way Fischer played with readers’ expectations and then subverted or denied them at every turn. While the end wasn’t a huge surprise to me, I’m not sure it’s intended to be. Instead, it seems that what Fischer really wants to focus on in Natalie’s response to and growth from her relationship with Nora. I loved the way this novel was woven together. In some ways, it really did keep me guessing until the very end. 

There are certain plot twists I wasn’t overly captivated or convinced by, and I wasn’t sure how to handle them as a reader—especially when Natalie’s character struggles to cope effectively with anything. The twist I’m thinking of definitely added some intensity and urgency to the novel, but that could have been accomplished more effectively in other ways, I think. 

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Adult and I think it’s an excellent novel to read for fall! 

Please put The Adult  on your TBR on Goodreads.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

Mermaid Obsession Story Treads Water: Chlorine by Jade Song

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In their debut novel Chlorine, Jade Song (she/they) draws upon her twelve years of lived experience as a competitive swimmer to craft the dark and complex inner world of Ren Yu, a Chinese American teenager coming of age in Pennsylvania and stepping—or rather, swimming—into her true destiny: becoming a mermaid.  While Song is clearly a compelling writer, Ren’s voice felt inconsistent and I often struggled to discern whether or not Song was invoking aspects of magical realism.

When Ren is four years old, her mother gifts her a book of mermaid folklore from around the world. Thus begins Ren’s thirteen-year journey from girl to mermaid. Although Ren is largely disconnected from her human existence, her love and tenderness towards her mother is palpable. Despite the cost, time, and energy, Ren’s mother is incredibly supportive of her swimming. Early in the book, Ren’s father abandons Ren and her mother to return to China. As a single parent, Ren’s mother struggles to make ends meet, but consistently shows up for Ren in meaningful ways and even when she does not understand Ren’s motivations.

Ren narrates the novel, which is interspersed with letters from her teammate and closest friend, Cathy. Ren’s obsession with becoming a mermaid and her detachment from both her humanity and the traumatic events in her life make her seem like an unreliable narrator. In contrast, Cathy’s letters ground the book and provide much-needed clarity as to the events that are transpiring, but it is apparent that her judgment is somewhat skewed by her feelings for Ren. Ren never labels her sexuality, but she does explore queer and sapphic feelings and connections throughout the book.

As much as I wanted to love Chlorine, it fell flat for me. Ren’s dissociation from reality made it hard for me to connect with her as a character. I also felt like I was at an impasse throughout my reading experience because I could not figure out if Song was incorporating elements of magical realism or if I was simply witnessing the steady decline of Ren’s mental health. That being said, I really enjoyed Song’s writing style. There is a rawness and honesty to their writing. She also has incredible attention to detail.  There were times she wrote so poignantly, I could feel Ren’s anxiety, desperation, longing, or hopefulness in my own body. I craved more of those scenes.

Even though Chlorine was not my favorite, I would definitely read another book by Song.

Trigger Warnings: Chlorine is rife with casual misogyny, most often espoused by Ren’s swim coach, Jim, who essentially grooms Ren from the time that she is seven years old. There are also discussions and instances of racism, self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia, depression, and sexual violence.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Fabulously Smart Summer Read: The Fake by Zoe Whittall

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A short novel with a lot of heart and an unputdownable plot, Zoe Whittall’s The Fake (2023 Ballantine Books) is a fabulously smart story. 

The Fake follows Shelia and Gibson, two unconnected characters who are drawn unwittingly into the same oppressive scheme. Shelia is still reeling from the sudden death of her wife, whose loss has left a bottomless pit of grief in her life. Gibson is similarly in limbo, having recently divorced his wife and moved into his own bachelor’s apartment, which, for Gibson, could not be more depressing. Both Shelia and Gibson are at their lowest when they suddenly meet the stunning, charismatic, deeply relatable Cammie. 

Shelia finally finds someone who can relate to her grief and trauma. And when Cammie unfairly loses her job and reveals that she is in treatment for kidney cancer, Shelia comes to the rescue, finally discovering a new sense of purpose after weeks lost in grief. Gibson can’t believe his luck: Cammie is so beautiful, it almost seems too good to be true that she’s actually interested in him. But eventually, both Shelia and Gibson begin to sense that something isn’t right about Cammie, and as more inconsistencies start to crop up, the two begin to wonder: is Cammie really who she says she is, or is she a con artist? As Shelia and Gibson come together to solve the mystery that is Cammie, they begin to confront the things about their own characters that haunt them.

I actually purchased this book on Canadian author Heather O’Neill’s recommendation. I’d never read Whittall’s fiction before, but I was delighted by this novel. Its short, punchy character kept me engaged and reading. Shelia’s very real, very queer, and very domestic grief over the tragic loss of her wife was so heartfelt and relatable. She was absolutely my favourite character—she felt very honest and unique. Shelia is also a character with a great deal of mental health struggles, and her visceral pain made her seem both vulnerable and brave. 

Shelia’s relationship with Cammie was captivating, and so was Cammie as a character. Whittall really keeps you guessing as to who Cammie is and what her motivations are. We, like Shelia and Gibson, can’t tell truth from fiction when it comes to her. It’s easy to see how characters are drawn into her orbit, and it’s clear that Whittall did a great deal of research into how these types of manipulative personalities function. Between the three central characters, Whittall did careful work to show us how the flaws and strengths of each figured into their interactions with one another. 

I really recommend The Fake if you’re looking for an excellent, short summer read that you’ll keep thinking about after you’ve read the final page!

Please add The Fake to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Zoe Whittall on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danielle reviews Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress

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Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress is a novel that follows four artists as they embark first on art school before conquering New York City. I loved everything about this novel. Everything. The characters are rich: Angress has done a phenomenal job of creating realistic characters who are not always likable—which, to me, makes them even more real. The four artists are flawed, have their own anxieties and grievances, and are at times self-conscious. Despite times throughout the novel when they are extremely unlikeable, by the end of the novel, two of the four characters, Karina and Louisa, have become some of my favourite fictional characters. It’s important to note that Angress seems to be a master of character development. Cruel at times, each character stumbles. I loved watching each character change direction and reach their potentials despite their earlier suffering and anxieties.

The dynamic between Karina and Louisa is what makes Sirens & Muses for me. Its 368 pages simply don’t have enough of them together. Karina is the character I found most difficult to like at the start of the novel, while Louisa is easy to love. By the time I finished reading, I’d fallen in love with both of them. Between the lines, they have a beautiful love story: obscured by the other two characters’ stories, Angress gave just enough to pull me into their relationship, and desperately hope for some sort of sequel to their story.

My heart hurt for the characters throughout Sirens & Muses. I found myself truly caring about them, and in that sense, Angress has created a masterpiece. The novel is part academic, part love story, part art discourse, and she weaves all of those themes together seamlessly. It is a smart, well-written book that I was immediately captivated by, and have remained captivated by weeks after reading it.

It was the perfect length, leaving you satisfied yet still wanting more, and with such realistic and detailed descriptions of the characters’ art, I felt as though I was walking through an art gallery of their creations: a fictional art gallery filled with the fictional art created by fictional characters. Angress has written a vivid and captivating novel that comes to life off the pages.

Danielle is a Lesbrary guest reviewer. If you would like to submit a review to be featured on the Lesbrary, check out the About page for more information.

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)