Emily Joy reviews Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

I’ve steadily been making way through the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a classic lesbian pulp series by Ann Bannon, for quite some time. Women in the Shadows is the third book in that series and by far the most difficult to read so far.

This review, by nature of being for the third book in a series, contains some spoilers for the first two books. That said, let’s get into it.

Women in the Shadows picks up after the second book, I Am a Woman, and quite some time has passed. Laura and Beebo are living together in Greenwich Village, and both are very unhappy. Laura feels that she is falling out of love with Beebo, and Beebo is only holding on more tightly, which only pushes Laura further away. When Laura finds herself attracted to Tris, another woman, things start spiraling out of control.

Trigger warnings for this book include domestic abuse (physical and emotional), animal abuse, self-harm, and rape. These are also mentioned and briefly discussed in my review.

When I read lesbian pulp, I always come across parts that are uncomfortable to read. Some of the language used to talk about LGBTQ identities and people of color is jarring. Ideas about sex and consent are very different, too. By nature, pulp fiction is supposed to be sensational and shocking, and I think the effectiveness of the sensation and shock only grows larger as the years pass. Some of the uncomfortable themes are also due to outdated social norms and ideas. I definitely don’t read lesbian pulp with any expectations for it to meet my contemporary ideas, and I think that’s okay.

I expect a certain amount of discomfort when I read lesbian pulp. I think the discomfort is often worth the satisfaction of reading and developing a greater understanding of this fascinating part of lesbian literary history. Even with all of this in mind, I had a very difficult time reading Women in the Shadows.

I think the most difficult part of this book is domestic abuse, both emotional and physical. Primarily, Laura is the abuse victim, as Beebo constantly gaslights her, physically overpowers her, and emotionally manipulates her. If readers are meant to root for Laura and Beebo as a couple, I was definitely doing the opposite and rooting for her to get out of that situation as soon as possible. The abuse is truly hard to read, and anyone who can potentially be triggered by it should be cautioned.

Highlight for spoilers. A particularly uncomfortable scene is when Beebo fakes being assaulted and raped by multiple men, who also graphically killed her dog. Now, I say faked, but when this scene first occurs we read it from Laura’s perspective, and she believes it to be true, so it can be very triggering under the assumption that this truly happened to Beebo. We later find out that Beebo faked it to gain Laura’s sympathy in a play to keep their relationship and keep her from leaving. This means that Beebo beat herself, and also gruesomely kills her dog. Later, when a friend gives her a new dog, she kills that dog too. It’s not fun to read. It’s not entertaining. It’s just difficult.

In the edition that I read, there was an author’s note addressing some of her errors in writing this book, and ultimately, I read pulp with a grain of salt anyway, so I wasn’t entirely put off by what could be considered “problematic”. However, others may feel differently and have different reactions than I did. There is certainly triggering material in almost all pulp novels, but Women in the Shadows seems to have an extra dose, so please do read this with caution if any of the triggers listed at the beginning are not okay for you. Otherwise, this book is a part of lesbian history as all lesbian pulp is, and especially Ann Bannon’s works. That alone makes it worth the read to me, no matter how hard it was to get through at times. But… I highly doubt I will ever reread this.

Casey reviews Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Ann Bannon’s pulp novel Odd Girl Out (the first of the famous Beebo Brinker series) is the first, and so far only, 1950s lesbian pulp novel I’ve read.  I knew vaguely going into this that things didn’t usually work out so well for the lesbians in these books—publishers usually insisted on a distinct lack of happy endings, you know, in case someone thought they might be advancing a homosexual agenda!  But I was trying to reserve my judgement until I’d actually read one of these pulp novels, and I naively got about a third of the way through Odd Girl Out thinking, wow, this love story is actually quite adorable and Bannon’s observations on the social conventions of 50s college life are actually quite fascinating.  Of course, Bannon had to go and ruin it by making one of the girls eventually fall for the so-called superior charms of a man; but, I’d like to see if I can tease out something a bit more positive that I can take from this novel.  Here goes!

Essentially, Odd Girl Out is the story of Laura, a sheltered young woman who has just started college; she’s intrigued by and then falls for her roommate, the tomboyish, confident older student Beth.  The erotic tension in the early stages of Laura and Beth’s relationship is quite well done; I vividly remember the scene where they go to the movies together and shyly begin to hold hands.  So cute!  Bannon really nailed the excitement/terror of delirious young love that produces that ‘I think I might be sick but I’m really happy anyway’ feeling.  In a way, the fact that Beth and Laura’s relationship is initially so sweet makes Beth moving onto Charlie—aptly described by Mfred in her review as “an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it”—all the more brutal, but I’m willing to give Bannon some credit here.  She does a great job showing us why Beth is so attractive, and I was actually surprised that it was her who ended up dating a man, and not Laura, because Beth is definitely more masculine; I’m guessing that allowing the more feminine Laura to embrace her queerness—as much as that’s possible in 1957—would have been revolutionary and unexpected for the time.  You end up cheering her on at the end.  I wanted to tell Laura as she head off to Greenwich Village by herself after being ditched by Beth at the last minute: “Don’t you worry about that traitor Beth, you’re going to find lots of cute dykes in NYC!”

The subplot involves Beth’s friend Emmy, who is kicked out of college for (gasp!) wearing a sexy costume that ‘accidentally’ reveals a bit too much at a party and then having pre-marital sex with her boyfriend whom the college forbad her from seeing.  This story is actually quite illuminating.  Can you believe that post-secondary institutions really had that kind of ridiculous control over female students?  After Emmy is forced to leave school, her boyfriend Bud promises to marry her, but Bannon leaves a distinct amount of doubt as to whether Bud is really going to do anything of the sort.  She makes it clear that Bud is privileged, able to continue school and to pursue his career as a musician while Emmy is sent home and punished.  Emmy is caught in a double bind: she’s booted out of school for her relationship with a man, but then her only hope for redemption is marriage.  So, Bannon is actually pointing out the flaws of heterosexual patriarchy, the very thing that Beth so happily accepts at the end of the novel.  There aren’t any explicit links drawn between Beth and Emmy’s situations, and likely Bannon intended Charlie to epitomize ‘one of those few good men left in the world,’ but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Bannon wasn’t really slyly critiquing the ways that patriarchal societies, on the one hand, teach women to depend only on men and to use their sexuality to secure one, and, on the other, punish women for their so-called weakness and call them sluts for expressing their sexualities.  In the end, the lesbian Laura is the only female character free of these restraints.  Now that is something I—and I think other modern readers—can appreciate, despite this novel’s dated flaws.

Mfred Reviews Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Laura goes off to college and meets Beth.  Beth inspires in her a frenzied, frightening passion, which she can barely contain.  Beth, in her loneliness, is drawn to Laura’s worship of her.  They start an affair.  Until Beth meets Charlie, and finally falls in love.

This is basically the plot of Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out and on this cursory, superficial level, I sort of enjoyed it.  It’s not the most well-written story I have ever read, and in particular, I found the narrative head-hopping from one character to the next jarring.   However, as a pulp novel, it satisfies.  There are a lot of trembling arms and heaving sighs, a lot of exclamatory statements and women on the brink of overwhelming desires.

As a modern day reader, I didn’t much like it.  Laura, for being the star of the scandalous lesbian plot, fairly disappears from the book for the last half.  When she is present, her character is presented as an underwhelming girl-child, always crying or about to cry.  Beth’s motivations for wandering in and out of a lesbian romance are explained in the most facile psych 101 terms (she wasn’t loved enough as a child!).  Charlie is an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it.

As a modern day lesbian, I liked it even less.  I will say, that for something produced in pulp literature world of the late 1950s, Odd Girl Out is less judgmental and less condemning than I expected.  There is no happy queer ending, but on the other hand, Laura is able to achieve a sort of self-acceptance that is presented in an admirable light.  Beth and Charlie definitely win the narrative race to heteronormative success, but Bannon carves out a small space for Laura too, and I appreciated that.