Author: Chloe Caldwell
Content Warnings: Emotional abuse; Substance abuse
Genre: Sapphic (Spicy) Literary Fiction
RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain
9/10 gut-wrenching violets.
This review contains spoilers.
“(We are, both of us, probably, addicted to anguish. Perhaps this is our bonding attribute: Our penchant for anguish and longing and the solitude that is required of both.)”Introduction to Women, Elizabeth Ellen
This text does not have a happy ending. But you probably already knew that.
I’m hesitant to write this review. It’s not because I’m one of those readers who accuse Chloe Caldwell of sexual tourism (although even I, with eyes as wide open as I can try to get them to be, am programmed to mistrust narratives that depict “straight” women exploring homosexuality with problematic gays only to ostensibly “return” to heterosexuality by the end of the narrative). I think it stems from the incredibly stereotypical depiction of butch lesbian Finn, who is emotionally abusive in the suggestion that she wishes to “own” the narrator. And from how the narrator often objectifies Finn as merely the vehicle to unbridled sexual pleasure. It almost feels as homophobic as it feels open to sexual fluidity.
Before I begin, I have to note that the pages my copy (purchased from Amazon several years ago) distinctly smell of sandalwood and essential oils. Does everyone’s book smell this way? Like a really painful love letter written for someone who doesn’t want you the way you want them? The smell of the book doesn’t alter the contents of what I’m about to say, so if it just so happens there’s the ghost of a butch lover trapped within the pages of my copy and my copy alone, it won’t sway my review, though I will say that its presence on my desk is coaxing my mind to drift off into the ways that this book is meant to be enticing, and why (other than the smell) someone might sniff this book out.
Chloe Caldwell’s unnamed narrator is no stranger to pain, even though her addictions allow her an easy avenue for numbing that pain. This novella is uncanny in its honesty and intimacy, even though there is some resistance to fully explore the contents of the toxic relationship between the younger unnamed narrator and her older butch lesbian lover, Finn. Caldwell offers so much information at times that it’s almost embarrassing to read, but perhaps that’s what’s so attractive about the novella, too.
What struck me was the narrator’s unconventionally close relationship with her mother. I’m not one to judge, but I found myself gawking more than once at (what I perceived as) their lack of boundaries. Maybe it just put too deft of a finger on my own mommy issues and its overlap with Sapphic sexuality. I kept finding myself comparing the narrator’s mother with Finn in uncomfortable ways, which perhaps was Caldwell’s intention. Perhaps I’m overly critical of this part of the novella, for I’d just read Shani Mootoo’s “Wake Up,” which depicts a young woman dreaming of kissing her own mother on the mouth. Mootoo handled the Freudian content beautifully and honestly, whereas Caldwell seems to conjure this uncomfortable ghost merely for the purpose of the discomfort it brings. Caldwell’s lack of analysis on this point makes me want to distance myself from this book and its representation of queer sexuality. Somewhere in here, my brain’s this-person-is-painting-lesbians-as-predators/pedophiles/molesters lightbulb went off. And that always pisses me off.
Most troubling about this text is its clear appeal to baby gays, however dangerous: it promises a story about a sexual “identity crisis,” as the blurb reads, but it does not deliver any clarity or (beneficial) insight into the experience of sexual discovery. Heartbroken, the narrator goes back home to her mother with no clarity on anything. She just knows that her experiments have been futile, and she’ll just stumble onto some new addiction. She hasn’t changed or grown. She’s just found new ways to hurt herself and be hurt by others.
As I read this story, I kept thinking about how damaging a story like this would’ve been to me had I read it when I was coming out (which, incidentally, was the exact time this book was published). It’s exactly the kind of pessimistic story I would’ve expected about sexual self-discovery, too. But the depiction of the narrator’s endless quest for fulfillment and the impossibility of ever being more than Finn’s sidepiece would’ve discouraged me from seeking out a queer relationship in the first place. It’s too pessimistic and inconclusive and dare I say… homophobic.
I’m thinking that this book’s plethora of spicy scenes are what colors so many readers’ perceptions of it. Yes, those parts were dangerous and enjoyable to a certain extent. But when you step away from the text and let the clouds clear from your eyes, what’s left–the “anguish and longing and […] solitude” as introduction writer Elizabeth Ellen puts it–isn’t so pretty.
If you want to feel utterly devastated and lose all faith in humanity, goodwill, and people’s intentions, you could give this a go. Queer media consumers have been fed so much pain over the years that some of us have grown to enjoy it, so this might be exactly what you’re looking for. Or you could pick up a queer text with a happy ending instead. But who am I to judge?