Tierney reviews Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger

Veras Will by Shelley EttingerVera’s Will is a beautifully-told queer family saga, one that is by turns heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and at every moment an entrancing read. Ettinger tells the tragic story of Vera’s life, from her family’s flight from Russia after anti-Jewish violence at the turn of the 20th century to her lonely death in the 1970s, with many family tragedies and missed opportunities for love in between. Interspersed with the chapters detailing Vera’s solitary and repressed life are brief sections told from the point of view of Randy, Vera’s granddaughter, as she learns about her family’s past and makes her own way in the world. Both women are lesbians, but their lived experiences vary wildly.
The two mirrored narratives showcase two vastly different time periods. One woman lives a loveless and unhappy life, unable to live as her true self, while the other is able to live her life freely as a lesbian, overcoming the hardships she encounters along the way thanks to her own sense of self and her certainty in her own identity and values. Randy lives Vera’s “what could have been,” gay liberation come to a boil after decades of repression and unhappiness.

Ettinger deftly interweaves social critique into her narrative: she touches upon homophobia, racism, sexism, worker’s rights, and more, without the story ever feeling forced or preachy. Instead these issues come up naturally, and add to the richness and depth of the story as Ettinger faces them head-on in the novel’s plot.

A well-written cast of secondary characters (both lovable and loathsome) also enriches and deepens the story, making it feel all the more epic and engrossing.

The story is intricate and delicately balanced between the two narratives, but despite Ettinger’s skill, some plot points are left hanging. Randy’s Aunt Bud is an intriguing character whose backstory is never fully explained, and who seemingly exists only to further the plot. Aunt Bud brought Randy to her first gay bar as a child – where Randy narrowly misses crossing paths with Vera, in a strange lesbian convergence. Aunt Bud herself seems to be a lesbian, but Ettinger glosses over her narrative potential and uses her character rather clumsily. This minor flaw in the novel stands out only because the rest of the novel’s characters are so well-written: this one puzzling element does not detract from the rest of the book.

Vera and Randy’s stories in counterpoint to one another make for a beautifully bittersweet novel, one that is both melancholy and heartening – the best bits of both emotions. It’s the kind of novel you want to read in one fell swoop, despite its length: Ettinger meticulously lays bare Vera’s entire life, taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster that is simultaneously heightened and soothed by Randy’s confrontation with her family’s past and journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

The story provokes that perfect combination of emotion and introspection. I loved Vera’s Will for its epic, multigenerational take on the lesbian coming of age story – it filled a void in queer fiction that I didn’t even know I needed, and left me hungry for more queer sagas of such far-reaching proportions.
[Trigger warning for descriptions of rape and violence.]

Danika reviews Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I’m going to be honest, I have no idea how to review this book. I loved Bechdel’s first comic memoir, Fun Home, so I was very excited to pick up Are You My Mother? And it definitely does have some of the best elements from Fun Home: the writing is amazing, the art is beautiful, and the entire book is intricate and complex. I feel like I’d have to read this at least four times before I can really feel like I “get it” at all.

Where Fun Home used the family house as a framing device for the story, Are You My Mother? relies on psychoanalysis, dream analysis specifically. Fun Home also had literature references throughout, and Are You My Mother? does reference Virginia Woolf several times, but most of the books mentioned are psychoanalysis books. It also revolves around Bechdel’s visits with her psychiatrist(s). (This is, of course, not to mention the central theme of her relationship with her mother.)

Bechdel’s relationship with her mother is more complex than her relationship with her father, partly because they can’t just be compared based on sexuality or gender roles, and partly because Bechdel’s mother is still alive, and resists being rewritten into one narrative.

I didn’t enjoy Are You My Mother? quite as much as Fun Home because a lot of the psychoanalysis went over my head, and I enjoyed the literature references in Fun Home more than the dream analysis in Are You My Mother? That isn’t to say the Are You My Mother? isn’t fantastic, however, and I expect that I will enjoy it more after a few re-reads.

Danika reviewed Maye’s Request by Clifford Henderson

In some ways, Maye’s Request seems like a very small story. It takes place in a short period of time, maybe a week or so. It revolved around the main character’s mother, father, and aunt, with her romance taking a definite backseat. At the same time, the characters and interactions between these four are so detailed and complex, there’s a lot of depth to it.

Maye’s Request is basically a story about a love triangle. A very dramatic love triangle. The main character (Brianna, usually called Bean) is trapped between them. Her mother and father are divorced, and since the divorce, her mother and her father’s twin sister got together. Now, Bean’s mother is on her deathbed and wants to fix this unusual family before it’s too late.

The love triangle premise is what drew me in, but luckily it is not nearly as soap opera-like as it sounds. Jen and Jake, the twins, are given a full back story, from their childhood onward. Their respective relationships with Maye are also explained with enough depth and back story to make it seem quite natural.

The writing and back stories in Maye’s Request were both strong enough to support the intriguing premise. I really recommend this!

Check out Allysse’s review as well!