“When Finn and I are drinking in dark bars, we forget we are in public, it’s as though we go underwater. When we finish kissing, she pulls away and looks around, saying, Woah, everything is still here.”
Every white-hot train-wreck passion deserves a book, at least in the eyes of the person experiencing it. These are moments of unbearable clarity, longing, sex, perfection—the sun coming through the curtains of a rented room, a particular person’s skin, the little things they said, the way one feels that one could not possibly feel more. And then so all that feeling overflows into writing. In Chloe Caldwell’s case it’s the story of her first female lover, an affair she had with a woman twice her age, who was also in a relationship, with whom she’s pushed off the emotional edge of the world with an intensity and desperation that clearly won’t end well. The book is an e-book published by Emily Books, Emily Gould’s awesome alt-lit project.
“I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes. She says it’s either like this, or monotonous and boring. As if there is no in-between.”
I liked this book. Caldwell has a directness and clarity in writing about herself that works really well, and the casual brushstrokes of her surroundings in a small, unnamed liberal city (I dunno, Portland?) are precise. The transgender best friend, the coffee shop, the bars and library and house-sitting for wealthier friends serve to let the reader in rather than locking us out, harder to do than it appears to be.
“We lay in bed together, stoned from the cookies. The bed was against a brick wall and I began to imagine we were alone in a different city together. Let’s pretend we’re in Paris or Brooklyn, I said.”
Caldwell is young; the story takes place in her early 20s, and she makes everything she doesn’t yet know or doesn’t yet understand one of the writing’s strengths:
“Sometimes I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I am looking for a shortcut–something I could say that would effortlessly untangle the ball of yarn I am trying to untangle here on these pages. But that would be asking too much from you. It wasn’t you who loved her, or thought you loved her.”
She’s not sure, really, what the ball of yarn is about, and doesn’t end up with an answer. There’s a quote I now cannot find where she says, something like, Oh, meaning, I’m sick of it. I give up.
I usually find that to be a drawback in writing by young writers. Two other excellent books about mad passions I’ve read this year, Cris Mazza’s Something Wrong With Her, and Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, are both written by women experienced and self-aware enough to start finding answers to Why this person? Why now? Caldwell isn’t there yet, but she knows how to tell a story based on what she’s got. At one point her therapist says about Finn, something like “you’ve got your hand an inch from your nose, she was never your friend,” which I thought was true. Respect to a girl who can write a good book with her hand in front of her face.
That hand, though blocked the view of the lover.
“I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.”
I wanted to fall in love with her, but I could barely see her. I had so many questions about her that went unanswered. Why was she so stuck in the relationship that she wouldn’t leave for Caldwell? (I suspected a child had been elided from the text, though Finn seemed to have a bit too much flexibility to party and sleep over for that). It’s implied that she’s stone-butch. How did she get there? How did Caldwell feel about it? How did Finn get to this point where she’s in her 40s and has fallen in love with a 20-year-old outside of her relationship? Does the affair leave both parties alienated and unknowable? Does sexual chemistry that intense need a particular brand of otherness and pain in order to thrive? I really enjoyed thinking about these things while reading, and didn’t feel the book needed to have the answers.
Another direction that the text goes, but only implicitly, is to raise the issue of how Caldwell’s own mothering is tied up in her sexual relationship with Finn. Almost the only details we get about Caldwell’s life outside of the affair concern her mother, with whom she’s very close and feels even closer to during the affair.
“Though I’ve always felt affectionate with my mom, I feel it more acutely now. Taking her hand under the table at bars. Noticing whether or not she touches me during the night while we sleep or rubs my back in the morning.”
It’s my theory that this is why the book has the generically wide but actually quite pointed title, Women. Heaven help us when we get together. It makes a good story though.