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)

Til reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars cover

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Trigger warnings: this book contains racism, homophobia (especially religious homophobia), and someone being outed

The Henna Wars 
by Adiba Jaigirdar is the story of Nishat, a Bangladeshi Muslim girl living in Ireland who decides to come out to her parents as a lesbian. At the same time, her school hosts a business competition. Nishat’s is one of two henna businesses, the other run by love interest Flávia and Flávia’s racist cousin. The book focuses on Nishat navigating personal and educational challenges all in the context of her culture.

At its strongest, this book is a portrayal of a Bangladeshi family living abroad. The extended family and community, the traditional practices and how Western traditions begin to mix in, and even everyday things like food all shine as a love letter to Bangladeshi experiences. Nishat’s relationship with her little sister Priti is especially complex, loving, and delightful as they share experiences as the first in their family born and raised in Ireland.

Adiba Jaigirdar is a talented writer with a way of saying simple, meaningful things in the most affective way possible. The absolute humanity of the main character and her feelings of love, hurt, and pride are real on every page. The pacing is steady. All of that combines for a very pleasant reading experience.

I had mixed feelings about Nishat as a character. She feels very real because of her flaws and it’s normal for a teenager not to fully consider how their actions impact others. I’ve seen her criticized for pettiness and that’s not what I mean—she goes to steal Flávia’s henna tubes, for example, and that was completely understandable. That’s the sort of flaw I like in a character. However, it was sometimes frustrating how much she prioritized her rivalry over relationships with people who genuinely seemed to care for and accept her, like her sister and friends. Because the narrative never rewards this, ultimately it didn’t leave me with too bad an impression, but it did create a weakness to the ending. There isn’t much in the way of consequences for Nishat’s harassers, or for Nishat herself—the plot centers on the business competition, but the book is actually about Nishat and her relationships with her family and romantic interest. For me as a reader, the lack of engagement with both the villain and the main character’s larger flaws in a character-centric piece made for a hollow conclusion.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as I read it, but its lasting impact on me was somewhat middling. It is an exceptional book about a queer brown girl with pride in herself. Just as a book, it has some flaws. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Shannon reviews Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake cover

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I’m not someone who watches a lot of TV, so I was super surprised to find myself gravitating toward books centered around reality tv shows. There’s something about these stories that captures my attention in a way the actual shows airing on television never have. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, the first book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, is a gem of a novel I read earlier this year, and something I’m beyond pleased to recommend to anyone looking for a story full of fun, tears, and a healthy dose of self-discovery.

Rosaline Palmer is tired of sacrificing her own dreams to make others happy. She got pregnant young and decided not to go to medical school, choosing instead to devote the bulk of her time and attention to raising her daughter. Her parents, who are classic overachievers, don’t fully understand or approve of Rosaline’s choices, and she’s pretty sure she’s a huge disappointment to them. Still, she knows she has to find a way to live life on her own terms, even if it turns out to be the hardest thing she’ll ever do.

To this end, she decides to harness her love of baking and becomes a participant on a new reality show for bakers. She’s pretty sure she won’t win, but winning isn’t as important to her as building her confidence and gaining some valuable baking experience. However, as things heat up both in and out of the kitchen, Rosaline begins to take her spot on the show much more seriously than she ever thought she would. Suddenly, winning the whole thing seems like a distinct possibility, and it’s a possibility she likes a lot.

One of the best things about this book is Rosaline’s journey toward self-acceptance. She’s bisexual, but has done her best to keep this part of her identity under wraps until now so as not to offend her parents or confuse her young daughter, but now that she’s fully committed to living life the way she wants, she’s unwilling to keep hiding who she is. Rosaline is smart, warm, and incredibly funny, but those aren’t the characteristics that drew me to her. Instead, I fell in love with her vulnerability and I found myself cheering her on from practically the first page of the book.

There’s definitely a romantic arc here, but I can’t say too much about this aspect of the story without spoiling some of the fun. Still, I think it’s important to be aware that this book feels more like women’s fiction than contemporary romance. Love is a big deal for Rosaline, but it takes a back seat to her own inner journey, and I loved the way the author chose to put the focus solely on Rosaline.

This book stirred up so many emotions as I read, some that were light-hearted and pleasant and others that were a little more difficult to sit with. The author packs a lot into the story, but it’s handled in a way that makes it super easy to read even if some of the subject matter is on the heavier side. Hall’s writing hooked me in right away, and I’m really excited to see what he has planned for the rest of the series.

Danika reviews A Dream of a Woman: Stories by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

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Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. My first experience reading Plett’s work was in chapbook form: Lizzy and Annie (review), which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it, because it’s accompanied by gorgeous watercolour illustrations. I loved it so much that I immediately bought her next book, A Safe Girl To Love (review), which I honestly still feel like I’m processing.

Her stories generally (always?) have trans women main characters, and they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. In A Safe Girl To Love, one of the characters described it as being like a “light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.”

A Dream of a Woman also centres trans women and deals with transmisogyny, but it also feels much more about relationships–family, friendship, and romantic ones–than her previous collection. It begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

There is a similar melancholic tone to these stories as I got from her previous works, but there also felt like a little more hope in this one, more moments of joy glittering throughout, leaving a bittersweet impression.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. They all feel like they could walk off the page and into your life–maybe especially for me because there are quite a few stories that take place in Canadian cities that aren’t quite my home but feel very familiar.

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who wants to feel bruise-tender about the world.

Content warnings for rape, addiction, and transphobia.

Every now and then you get offered an exit, something you didn’t plan for, something you don’t deserve, and something you don’t believe you can rely on. So you don’t take it. Eventually, I realized: it doesn’t matter. No one deserves anything, really. I was on a plane a year later.

Shannon reviews Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

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Contemporary romance isn’t always my genre of choice. I often struggle to identify with the characters and the situations in which they manage to embroil themselves, and to be quite honest, I was a little worried about this when I first picked up Morgan Rogers’s Honey Girl. It revolves around the idea of two women who marry each other on a drunken whim in Vegas, even though they literally know nothing about one another. I wasn’t sure I would be able to suspend my disbelief enough to fall into the story, but Rogers’s writing managed to draw me in right away. Soon, the fact that the novel’s beginning felt pretty implausible didn’t matter to me at all.

The story is told from the perspective of Grace, a Black woman in her late twenties. She has just earned her PhD and is trying to figure out what’s next for her. All her life, she’s clung to her dream of being a well-known astronomer, but now that she’s ready to enter the working world, she’s beginning to wonder if astronomy is actually the thing that will make her happy long-term. To celebrate her degree, Grace heads off to Vegas with her two best friends, and it’s there she meets and marries Yuki, a Japanese waitress whose beauty seems to bowl Grace completely over from the moment they meet.

When she wakes up the next morning, she has only hazy memories of the previous night’s events. She’s wearing a wedding ring, and Yuki has left behind a business card, a photograph, and a note–which it’s clear she hopes Grace will use to learn more about her. At first, Grace is determined to put her ill-planned marriage out of her mind and get serious about finding the perfect job. However, the stresses of being a queer Black woman in a field that doesn’t seem the least bit receptive soon have Grace realizing she might need to make different choices. So, she does some research and learns the identity of the woman she married and eventually decides to spend the summer in New York City with Yuki.

The characters are the crowning glory of this book. The story itself is charming and poignant, but I doubt I would have enjoyed it even half as much if the characters hadn’t resonated with me so deeply. Grace is driven to be the absolute best at everything she does, even when that drive causes her to cheat herself out of the things that truly make her happy. She’s desperate to please her extremely strict father, and for a good portion of the book, she is unwilling to take a closer look at the way he treats her.

Yuki is Grace’s opposite in almost every way. She’s passionate and free-spirited, kind of new-agey and quirky in a way that made me fall completely in love with her before the novel was half over. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see things from Yuki’s perspective, so we only truly know her through Grace’s lens. Still, there was something so open and loving about the way she views the world, and I found myself really wanting Grace to let go of some of her emotional baggage and give her feelings for Yuki a chance.

Honey Girl is anything but a light and fluffy romance. Rogers touches on a number of serious issues facing women today, and I was drawn to the story’s depth. I loved peeling back the numerous layers of every character the author created. It was almost like making new friends.

If you love novels with a found family element, Honey Girl will be right up your alley. Both Grace and Yuki have amazing support systems. Their friends are exactly the kind of people I want in my life, and I absolutely loved seeing how they loved and supported each other through both the good times and the bad. People do call each other out for bad behavior at times, but it’s never done in a way that promotes shame or self-loathing. Instead, it’s clear that everything these people do for one another is done out of a deep and abiding love.

This is part romance and part coming-of-age story. It takes my favorite elements of both types of books and blends them together to create something that is utterly fresh and original. I haven’t come across many books as powerful as this one, and I can’t wait to see what Morgan Rogers has in store for readers in the years to come.

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Danika reviews Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

There are some books–very rarely–that I read and form such a personal attachment to that I don’t want to share them with the world. This is one of them. I picked it up based on the fact that it was queer and had a blurb from Carmen Maria Machado; that was about all I knew about it. It turned out to be an immersive, raw, sometimes overwhelming reading experience.

Content warning: Discussion of disordered eating, self-loathing, internalized homophobia.

This follows Rachel, a twenty-something woman who is obsessed with food. She carefully counts calories and dutifully exercises to keep thin. She is ravenous. Every moment she is awake, she is thinking about food. She was raised to prize and police her body, and despite this tight control she keeps over her weight, it’s never enough for her mother. Rachel is a woman repressed. She is either bisexual or a lesbian, but she’s pushed that down most of her life. She desperately wants her mother’s approval, and she feels like her hunger is bottomless. In her mind, she has to exert this control because if it slips for a moment, she will spin out of control. She will never stop eating. She will never stop gaining weight.

During a session, her therapist asks her to do two things: 1) To go on a 90 day communication detox from her toxic mother, and 2) To sculpt her fear of gaining weight. Rachel agrees, and she uses all of the clay available to her to sculpt a fat woman. Her therapist says, “I think she’s quite lovely. And I think she’s worthy of love–more than worthy of love, actually. Don’t you think so?” Rachel storms out of the session and doesn’t return.

The next day, she goes to get her daily low-fat yogurt (no toppings, filled just to the line) and meets a new employee: a beautiful fat woman who fills her cup past the line and comps her some sprinkles. Rachel is panicked: this does not fit into her calorie plan. Instead of throwing the extra yogurt out, though, she finds herself devouring it, and coming back every day. Soon, she is falling for Miriam, and every time they are together, she finds herself veering from her controlled food plan.

The main character struggles with her repressed sexuality, her issues with food and her body, and her mother issues, and those all get tangled up in each other–which is my way of trying to tactfully give a content warning for her fantasizing sexually about a (fictional) mother/daughter relationship. She is looking for mother figures in the wrong places, desperately wanting the unconditional love she never received as a child.

This is a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.” On approval: “What I wanted most was for this certified hot person to see a hotness in me, thereby verifying, once and for all, that I was hot. It wasn’t that civilians didn’t find me attractive. But for a licensed hot person to verify me? That was the real shit.”

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. In a way, I was reading Rachel like Rachel was watching Miriam: as the fear and the secret dream. The idea of being so in control, contained, and thin is attractive–even though I know those thoughts are extremely unhealthy. At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

“Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” said the rabbi.

This book had me almost in tears several times. I think that many–most?–women fear being out of control, and often feel like they’re right on the precipice of it. This story asks, What happens if you let go? If you fed that hunger until it was appeased? “What do you have to lose?” the Rabbi in her dreams asks. What is so desirable for Rachel about being thin, hungry, and alone?

Rachel has been sexual, but as an object more than a subject. She’s only ever craved being desired. With Miriam, she’s discovering desire, discovering herself as sexual agent. It’s also a celebration of fatness. The beauty and freedom of fat. And it’s a rediscovering of her body, learning to listen to what it needs and desires. This doesn’t have a romance ending, but it’s the messy, imperfect close this story needs. She doesn’t and shouldn’t get everything she wanted. But she can be kinder to herself and stop going to the hardware store for milk.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of Milk Fed. I haven’t even mentioned how much discussion of Judaism is here–Miriam is devout, while Rachel is lapsed and is trying to rediscover her relationship with it. And I haven’t really talked about Miriam’s character at all, or the ups and downs of their relationship. Still, I hope this review gives you some sense of the journey I went through reading this. It was a cathartic, immersive read that I will not be able to forget.

16 Brilliant Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction Novels to Keep You Thinking

Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction to Keep You Thinking graphic

When I say that I read mostly bi and lesbian literature, people often assume that means F/F romance. Although I like the occasional romance novel, the truth is that it makes up very little of my reading life. There are sapphic books in every genre: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, nonfiction, etc. One of the genres I gravitate towards is bi and lesbian literary fiction—which is a tricky thing to describe. What makes a book literary fiction? Well, usually it is more character-driven than plot-driven. It may deal with “big ideas” and concentrate more on questions than on action. It’s often seen as complex and “well-written”—but all of these qualities are subjective. I’m not interested in getting a perfect definition. Instead, I want to offer some book recommendations that will likely appeal to you if you read books that are marketed as “literary fiction.”

This is in no way a complete list of every bi and lesbian literary fiction book out there. They’re just some of my favorites. To simplify, I decided to leave out the “classics” of lesbian literature: The Well of Loneliness, The Color Purple, Rubyfruit Jungle, and other books published in the early days of queer lit. These are not all recent releases, but they are biased towards books that have come out in the last decade or two. Did your favorites make the list?

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude by Ellis Avery

This is historical fiction based on Tamara de Lempicka, and it made me fall in love with Ellis Avery as an author and Tamara de Lempicka as an artist. It’s about the artist’s relationship with one of her models, Rafaela, who was the inspiration for six paintings. It’s beautiful and melancholy, and completely pulls you into 1920s Paris. It will make you think about art, doomed romance, discovering your sexuality, our relationships to our bodies, queer history, and the nature of betrayal.

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne BrandIn Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

This is about two women in Trinidad: one a sugar cane worker, another an activist attempting to unionize the workers. They are immediately drawn to each other, but their relationship is threatened by outside forces, including racism and homophobia. This book will make you think about belonging, and feeling caught between (and left outside of) two communities. It will make you think about immigration, and what it means to be “illegal,” about justice and belonging, and about individual choices in an unjust system.

My Education by Susan ChoiMy Education by Susan Choi

This books at first glance seems to be the very stereotype of a literary novel: a young university student begins taking classes with a professor rumored to sleep with his students. They begin sleeping together. When Regina meets his wife, however, she is far more interested in her—and that’s the dynamic at the heart of this novel. This book will make you think about trainwreck relationships—the kind you can’t quite resist, about flawed main characters, and about the mistakes you make in early adulthood.

Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana CurrimbhoyMiss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

This is an atmospheric, absorbing book about teaching at a boarding school in India in the 1970s during the monsoon season. Sheltered Charulata is only a handful of years older than the students, but she changes quickly, especially when she has two sordid, tragic love affairs (one male partner, one female). Then a student turns up dead, and the mystery element begins. This will make you think about coming of age and discovering your own identity.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-BennPatsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy has just taken her chance to move to the U.S., leaving her small Jamaican hometown behind—as well as her 5-year-old daughter. Patsy follows the main character and her daughter over years, and how they both reconcile with this decision, and what it means for their relationship. It will leave you thinking about family, independence and interdependence, gender, and sexuality. Be sure to also check out her previous novel, Here Comes the Sun.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma DonoghueThe Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This title is standing in for a lot of Donoghue books: she’s one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction. The Pull of the Stars is set during the 1918 pandemic in a small hospital ward, which is either exactly what you want to read right now, or exactly the opposite. It will leave you thinking about the parallels between that pandemic and ours, about justice in healthcare, pregnancy and childbirth, and motherhood.

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This book is an experience. It follows three women in different countries and time periods: Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne in 1880s France, and Meritet in ancient Alexandria. Binding the three together is the spirit Ezili, who inhabits each of them at different times. This book has an F/F sex scene in the first 15 pages, and let me tell you, when I was assigned this in university, I was not expecting that. This book will leave you thinking about freedom and oppression, what’s worth sacrificing, misogyny and racism throughout time, sexuality, spirituality, the beauty of language, and so much more.

when fox is a thousand by larissa laiWhen Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai

This is told in three perspectives: the eponymous fox, counting down until her thousandth birthday when she will acquire power and knowledge; Yu Hsuan-Chi, a real-life poetess from 9th century China; and Artemis, a young woman in modern-day Vancouver. This is told like folklore, with fables woven throughout. It’s beautifully written, I firmly believe it should be considered a classic of lesbian literary fiction. This will make you think about toxic friendships, about activism uninformed by compassion and respect, and about queering folklore.

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado coverHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This is a beautiful and unsettling collection that takes familiar stories and exposes the misogyny beneath them. They are thoughtful, metaphorical stories: women who fade away until they are imbued into objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, and urban legends transformed. Read this to think about gender, stereotypes (a writer is accused of writing a stereotype, and she explains that she’s writing about herself—her gay, anxious self), folklore, feminism, and more.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia MckenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie

This book feels like the moment before a summer thunderstorm. It’s about a family dealing with the fallout from a tragedy they can’t bare to talk about. We alternate between Ava’s childhood, when she was free-spirited and passionate, and her closed-off, practical adult self. Read this to think about race and racism (particularly anti-Black racism), societal norms, growing up, family secrets, and the possibility of kissing a strange woman who shows up at your doorstop.

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

Mala is sent to Paradise Alms House after she is declared unfit to stand trial for suspected murder. Slowly, she begins to unravel her life story to her nurse, Tyler (a gender-nonconforming person of indeterminate gender). Two queer love stories emerge: one in Mala’s past, one with Tyler. This story will make you think about homophobia, racism, and the intersections between them; about inter-generational queerness; and about hope.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo OkparantaUnder the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

This story is about two star-crossed lovers in Nigeria: they’re both girls, and from different ethnic communities. They are thrown together during civil war—but this is not a romance, and they are torn apart. Ijeoma has to learn what do about this part of herself that has to be hidden for her safety and acceptance. Read this to think about the the dangers of being out in different places around the world, to consider how much is worth sacrificing to be your whole self, and how these impossible choices may change over time.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique is shocked when Evelyn Hugo picks her to pen her biography: Hugo is an aging starlet whose biography is sure to be a bestseller, and Monique is an unknown writer with some magazine credits. Still, she takes the opportunity, and listens to Hugo unravel her life story, which reveals how she stayed closeted about her sexuality (bisexual) and ethnicity (Latina). Read this to think about the cost of fame, bi-erasure, complex female characters, racism, and 1950s Hollywood.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

You might find this in the sci-fi/fantasy section, but this is more alternate history than steampunk. It’s a reimagining of the colonial history of the Republic of Congo, and also follows a tumultuous, decades-long relationship between two women of very different backgrounds. Read this to think about colonialism, racism, white “passing,” complicated F/F relationships, intersectionality, war, and the story structure of including a staggering amount of point of view characters.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is my favorite author, so this is a stand-in for all of her books, but I especially recommend picking up Fingersmith, too. Tipping the Velvet is a “lesbo-Victorian romp” (that’s the author’s description) about a small-town girl falling for a male impersonator and joining her on the road. Read it to think about being queer in Victorian England, male impersonators and gender, first loves, socialism, relationships that develop from friendships, and love after loss.

Written on the Body by Jeanette WintersonWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction, so there are a lot of her books I could have included, but I especially recommend this and The PassionWritten on the Body is remarkable for not stating the gender of the protagonist explicitly at any point, but it’s generally regarded as a classic of lesbian literary fiction. It’s about the narrator’s adoration of Louise, a married woman, and singing the praises of her and her body. Read this to think about gender assumptions and signifiers, and about being passionately in all-consuming love.

Bonus book:

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Okay, you’ll almost certainly find it in the science fiction section: it’s about two women on opposite sides of a war across space and time, leaving each other letters—at first taunting, and then romantic. The letters between Red and Blue are so beautiful and lyrical that you’ll forgive me for including it on this list. Read this to think about poetry and love letters, war and time travel, and recognizing the humanity of people we’ve been taught to dehumanize.

Those are my picks for bi and lesbian literary fiction that will leave you with much to ponder! This is only a brief introduction: there are many more sapphic literary works, and more are being published all the time. If you pick up any of these, let me know what you think on Twitter! I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to also offer any recommendations of bi and lesbian literary fiction you think I’d enjoy! I’m always looking for more.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

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