Carol by Patricia Highsmith

carol

The problem is this: in Germany, we don’t get to see movies in the English original, unless there happens to be a movie theater near that offers to do that. They didn’t offer Carol and I’m loath to watch the German dubbed version. What did I do? I bought the book.

The Price of Salt (the original title when it came out in 1952) has been on my reading list for some time, but as it always goes, I hadn’t come to it yet. The movie put the book in my local bookstore and there you go. I bought it, and I’m not sorry I did.

Here’s what Carol is about:

19-year-old Therese Belivet works in a department store over the holidays. Carol Aird is a customer looking for a doll for her daughter. Their eyes meet and from that moment on they yearn to be together. They try to be friends, but on a trip they take together they finally succumb to their desires. Waterloo is their downfall. But Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband has sent a private detective after them and their affair doesn’t stay undetected. The price of salt being the custody of Carol’s daughter.

Lauded as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, this lauding took away the surprise of the ending. Because one could not help being surprised at a happy ending for a novel that seems melancholy. The love between the two women seems doomed and thus I had the feeling at the end that the ending doesn’t quite fit.

This however does not take away from the beauty of the novel. Told from Therese’s point of view, but not in the first person, it is a story of youthful awkwardness and misunderstandings. But it is a story of growth in a human being, maybe even more so than a love story. Through her love for Carol Therese grows into an adult. While Carol is certainly a guiding person, she is far from perfect. Her mood swings sometimes dramatically, and the audience – together with Therese – can only wonder at her attraction to the young woman. But it’s there, it is just hidden because Carol knows better than to fall for a woman again.

The book is an emotional roller coaster, and while one does not always understand Therese’s feelings or actions, they make sense for her. The same goes for her misunderstanding of Carol who remains a mystery for most of the tale.

Throughout the read, I kept underlining passages that are so beautifully written they took my breath away. While the book is of spartan discription, the inner musings are philosophical, sometimes poetic. The love falls in front of a cold backdrop, it being winter and even Therese wishing her feelings had fallen into spring. But love does not wait for the perfect backdrop, it just happens. And the book never doubts that it did happen for Therese, she’s not shy to even confess to them before she even knows that Carol feels for her too. These feelings overwhelm her, they’re too powerful to doubt them.

CarolThe Price of Salt – is a beautiful book, it’s an important book, it’s the book you should read in 2016 if you haven’t read it yet. I still can’t quite put my head around it, but it’s a great read, an emotional one too. It’s not a pleasant summer read, but it’s worth your time.

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Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown

almamaterI read this novel years ago and in German. I read a lot of Brown back then and I loved her stories, mainly because they’re very Southern stories about Southern women and their relationships to each other (and not just lesbian relationships, I’m talking sisters, mothers and daughters,  aunts and nieces). While I come from nowhere near the American South, I can certainly relate to the female relations-part since like most of her characters I have very strong, very determined female relatives. They have influenced my life.

Since reading it last, I have always remembered Alma Mater as a book I wanted to read again – here’s what it’s about:

Vic Savedge meets Chris Carter and is besotted. She falls hard for the other young woman and the feeling is mutual – too bad that Vic has a boyfriend and all her relatives in Surry County expect her to marry him soon. While Vic loves Charly Harrison very much, there is just something missing from their relationship. Vic finds that piece of herself in Chris: it is unbridled passion. Between new cars, old acquaintances and the drink of the day, Vic has to find out where she belongs and with whom – never mind that life has its own ideas of what is going to happen next.

The whole story is a great big mess – just like life. Because life doesn’t wait until you have made up your mind and it isn’t fair if you can’t. Life just happens. And there’s a lot of life happening in Rita Mae Brown’s Virginia. Her characters walk, glide, stumble and fall into the full of it, usually with a sense of humor if not decorum. The voices are distinct, the dialect telling, the settings sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre but always close to home.

I guess you can tell that I like Brown’s stories. With Alma Mater, after all those years of not reading Brown, I realized that her style is quite disorganized. I’m not sure it’s the same with her other books but I rather liked that her writing is as unpredictable as the things that are happening. After reading so much about how to properly structure and paragraph a novel, it’s amusing to read somethig that defies the rules. But this is Rita Mae Brown and she can afford it – us mere mortals who are amateurs shall not.

There’s one thing about the novel that left me dissatisfied, though. While most of the characters get their share of exploration, Chris Carter remains a little pale to me. I couldn’t quite grasp her and would have wished for more time between her and Vic. Given, this is not a traditional lesbian romance, it’s much more of a family portrait, a book about Southern women and relationships. Still, the romance between Vic and Chris is why a lot of things happen but it pales in comparison to other relationships, even the one between Vic and Charly. I would have liked to spend more time with Chris, get to know why she did the things she did, where her convictions came from.

Apart from that: a great read, a wild ride, entertaining and quick.

Second Nature by Jae

secondnature1My reading habits are all over the map right now and there’s no sense or order in what I read or don’t read these days. Luckily, this fit into my research about the supernatural. So let’s talk shape-shifters:

Jorie Price is writing a novel. Unfortunately for her, the dreams that gave her the idea for her newest story are not just Freudian seductions like Stephanie Meyer’s – they’re prophecies about a species that lives in secret: shape-shifters. When Jorie’s beta-reader who is also a shifter becomes concerned about the accuracy of the descriptions of her species, she informs the Saru, a secret police force of shape-shifters who start to investigate the writer and a possible informant.

Griffen Westmore is the investigator who is send to Michigan to find out where Jorie gets her information. She’s just as private and closed off as Jorie and the two find it easier to connect with each other than with their respective families. But when Griffen’s commanding officer Cedric Jennings pushes the shape-shifters’ council to issue a killing order on Jorie Griffen has to decide where her loyalties lie or be caught in the cross fire between humans and shifters.

Second Nature is a compelling read. It has a great story and Jae conveys it expertly. She weaves a tapestry of family relations, friendship and devided emotions and doesn’t waver in her pursuit of a fascinating and exciting story. The beginning is a little slow but that is to be expected when the supernatural elements are introduced and it is never boring. Jae combines facts and fiction so elegantly that it is a pleasure to read about her creatures, their living situation and culture.

I have stated before that I’m not a great fan of writers who make their main characters writers. Too often it ends in tedious descriptions of what we writers find endlessly fascinating – the process of writing and living as writer – but what everybody else must recognize as masturbatory self-congratulation. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here. Jae doesn’t dwell on whatever might be her own philosophy about writing, instead she introduces us to a main character who is not defined by her profession only. Jorie is interesting and three-dimensional and thus a believable target for the affections of a liger shape-shifter such as Griffen Westmore.

The love story between these two characters progresses slowly and believable. Private people like Jorie and Griffen don’t fall in love at first sight and their developing friendship is actually a greater focus of the book than the sexual attraction which happens simultaneously but more subtle than in most romances. Jae leaves her characters with enough room to figure out their feelings in their own time and I appreciate that very much.

While I really enjoyed this story and could hardly put it down after the chase for life had begun, there’s something about Jae’s style that’s a little tiring. While her descriptions are all very good, there are simply too many of them. This is especially true during conversations where the constant interpretation of emotions hems the flow of the dialogue. Jae does not seem to trust the reader to interpret scenes by themself and sometimes her explanations are repetitive. Strangely enough, this does not ruin the fun of the book as it is part of Jae’s writing style and perfectly incorporated into the story. Still, I think I could have done with less of it as interpretation is a part of reading I really enjoy – but maybe that’s just me.

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

kissingthewitchFairy tales fascinate – for whatever reason we are so engrossed in these stories (be it those of the Brothers Grimm or maybe Hans Christian Anderson) that we are prone to pick them up again when we’re adults, either to read them to our own children or maybe even reminisce on our own. Everybody and Hollywood does, and especially the latest interpretations of the old texts tend to be different, many try their luck at feminism. Emma Donoghue takes it a little father still, not by empowering women in fairy tales per se but by making it all about them.

Bonding between women is what her tales are all about, and they’re recognizable tales by the Grimms and Anderson that she changes into modern art. But she doesn’t simply change them, she weaves a tapestry where they are interconnected and puts them in beautiful prose of the female narrators.

While these are already wonderful accomplishments, her stories wouldn’t be half as fascinating if Donoghue stopped here. What I find truly captivating are her observations on how female stereotypes are being created. The witch is certainly a most central figure of female deviance – but can mere circumstances turn an innocent girl into a witch? Society’s glance (or maybe it is the ‘male gaze’) can turn a woman into pretty much anything. Prejudice can turn you against a step-mother whether she may be cruel or not just by the mere mention of the moniker – and fairy tales certainly add to the mystical evilness of a father’s second wife (while it is always she who is in the wrong not the father/king who often only marries for the sake of a male heir or his sexual pleasure, as these stories go). Donoghue looks behind the blinding curtains of prejudice and stereotypes and shows us what goes on behind them, how female roles are being created and contorted.

If you’re looking for a heterosexual love story among these texts you will be disappointed. Donoghue’s heroines may not all be of a lesbian occupation but her texts do not cater to heteronormative tastes either. The males that do appear here are mostly stupid, weak, or cruel and do not play significant roles at all. The woman stands at the center of these tales, not as she was wont to be represented by medieval times but how she most likely was.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

themiseducationofcameronpostReading is kind of slow these days and I hope you’re all more successful on the reading front than I am. But I muddled through one and I think it is worth a shot (every book that I finish when I’m not really in the mood for reading is certainly worth a shot).

It’s aboout (as the title suggests) Cameron Post, a young girl who loses her parents in a car accident. Now an orphan, she is living with her grandma and aunt Ruth in the middle of nowhere, Montana. Figuring out that she is gay isn’t as much of an issue as the attitude of the people around her toward homosexuality and it comes as no surprise that once Cameron is ‘found out,’ she ends up in a place to end all same-sex tendencies, a religious compound called ‘Promise.’ But the promise of ‘healing’ is hard to fullfill, especially when one is as unwilling to be healed as Cameron and her new friends are.

Emily Danforth did a great job conveying life in the middle of Montana where she herself grew up. The book is also a vivid picture of the possibilities of youth, the ways one finds to escape from the doctrines of the church and religious upbringing. Cameron is rebellious enough to make us believe that escape is possible because there is no doubt that it is necessary. It’s sometimes a little discouraging, though, to see a young person struggle against unbeatable odds – especially since it plays during the nineties and one would expect a more understanding environment all around.

This book is one of those rare occasions where one would have sat through a whole life-story without ever getting bored. Danforth’s prowess as story teller are impressive but are seemingly cut short by the ending. While I liked reading the story as such, the ending left me dissatisfied. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make any sense but it certainly felt abrupt compared to the way she builds the story. While Cameron finally gains some closure, I (as a reader) felt left with some story yet untold. It is possible that this is my own fault, that I did not prepare myself enough for an ending that came too soon for me. I like to dwell in a good story and sometimes it’s simply too hard to reenter reality after a good read.

On the whole, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a well-written coming-of-age and coming-out novel. It’s believable, vivid and will throw you back into a time in your own life when you broke some rules… a time when rules were meant to be broken.