I read Women in one sitting.
I had been waiting months to read it. My aunt passed the title my way sometime in October. I had just moved to the city, and books were already piling up next to my bed, forming a kind of barrier against the window. I started therapy, and developed a new ritual: I would walk out of my therapist’s office (in tears, of course) and make my way to The Strand. I’d pick a book, smell it, read the first few sentences, caress its cover, decide it had to be mine. I’d buy it, walk across the street to the coffee shop, sit with a cup of coffee, and begin reading.
I kept looking at Women, every time I went into the store. It was so small, so bare. I liked the way it didn’t try too hard to be anything, to grab my attention. Beige cover, brown title, one word. It reminded me of French bookstores, those lovely, perfect stacks filled with white and beige spines, consistent to the point of madness, differing only in name.
When I saw it again, walking through the stacks last Saturday, I knew it was time. I remembered reading the review, something about a woman falling in love with a woman for the first time, a lesbian coming-of-age story, or something like that. Oh yes I better read that, I thought.
It’s Saturday night. My parents have just left after their first time visiting me in the city. Off they go with their suitcases and bags and photographs of the city. Once they leave, the illusion of living in a family again (coffee handed to me when I wake up in the morning, how was your day? when I return from school, what should we watch? cramped in the queen bed at night falling asleep together like we always used to do) has left with them. I am alone in my apartment and we have been walking all day and my feet hurt and it is so quiet here, how is it so quiet here? How could my apartment feel so different, and yet so familiar, as if the months I’ve lived here were my whole life and none of it.
I get annoyed at the sunlight, stubbornly sticking around longer than it has in months. I make tea, because I’m trying this new thing where I give my body what it needs to teach it what it wants and then I learn that it can want what it needs and right now I really really want a cup of very hot jasmine tea.
I sit on my bed, propped up against the headboard, and I’m holding my tea, and it’s so quiet I wish I could scream just to test it, but that only makes me want to cry, so I grab the book and start reading.
“Girls are cruelest to themselves. — Anne Carson, The Glass Essay”
I am not sure whether to be annoyed or curious by this epigraph. Any book that begins with “girls are” or “women are” is immediately dubious, in my opinion.
I choose to be curious.
The first few pages sweep me away. They are beautifully written, tangling past present and future around a central figure, the narrator’s lover, a “her” that goes, at first, unnamed. It is immediately clear that the narrator will speak of love, try to untangle the meaning of the words tattooed on her lover’s back: “Love, the poet said, is a woman’s whole existence.”
A Virginia Woolf quotation on the first page: this looks promising.
“I am trying to decide what you need to know about Finn before we start,” the narrator explains. “I don’t know if I will be able to get you to see her the way I saw her. 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 the book in the way I hope you will.”
I should have known, after reading this passage, that I wouldn’t be able to put the book down. I had to know how the narrator “saw” Finn, what made them fall in love, why she’s talking about their love in the past tense, what went wrong.
“Isn’t it sad to talk about ex-lovers in the past tense,” she says on the next page, “as though they are dead?”
It doesn’t take long before I’m crying. Page 15, to be exact. I suppose every person who’s been in love has that list of things that set them off, make them ache.
On page 15, the narrator sleeps over at Finn’s apartment for the first time. Finn offers her pants to sleep in, they get into bed together, Finn holds her, they can’t fall asleep, they tell each other stories.
(Dyke Aching was the original title of the book. Seems fitting.)
It goes on like this, and they fall in love. Or at least, that’s what the narrator calls it. Love as in: a woman’s whole existence.
The narrator becomes obsessed, unable to hold back even though she knows that Finn is in a relationship with a long-time girlfriend. After sleeping with Finn for several weeks, the narrator begins to wonder if she herself is queer, though she never thought she was.
I wanted so badly for this book to be revelatory, for the feeling of those first few pages to last. I was so hungry for an honest, tender portrayal of a woman’s first queer relationship, and the heartbreak that follows.
But by the end, I was disappointed. I got the feeling that the narrator wanted me to be on her side, hating Finn for for breaking her heart. But I wasn’t on her side. In fact, if anything, I was on Finn’s.
Reading this book was kind of like falling for a straight girl: she is beautiful and charming at first, but in the end you have to accept that she just isn’t playing for your team.
As I got further and further into the meat of the novel, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the narrator’s depiction of queer women. Finn is your stereotypical butch character: always wearing men’s clothes, always the one doing the fucking, emotionally unavailable, attracted to “girly” women. The narrator constantly makes comments about how much more “dramatic” her life has become since dating a woman, an observation that Finn affirms, saying that’s just how women are.
And then there’s the endless pathologizing of the narrator’s own sexuality. She’s a substance abuser, and Finn is like a drug to her. She misses her mother, and being with a woman fills that roll… On and on and on.
And then there’s the passage where the narrator, fed up with Finn, decides to brave a dating website. Her description of the women she goes on dates with would be funny if it weren’t so offensive: the first is a “bike dyke,” the second a U-Hauler, another a vegan. This was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t.
And then there’s the fact that being in a relationship with Finn makes the narrator literally lose her mind (episodes of mania, drug abuse, depression).
Finn is left heartbroken and depressed, ruined by her relationship with the narrator. “I can’t be in a relationship with anyone,” she says, if you have to grieve something, grieve that.”
It goes on like this, depressing trope after depressing trope, until it finally comes to an end.
I close the book.
I’m full of disappointment, and frustration, and judgement. I wanted you to be everything! I feel like screaming at the book. I wanted you to be something else!
The next morning, I sit down to write this post. I think to myself: yes, here it is, my chance to have revenge.
I start writing. I pick up the book from time to time, flipping through to remind myself what it was that made me so angry. I find myself rereading the first few pages. I find myself unable to stop. What a beautiful sentence, I think to myself, what a great moment.
And then I realize: this is exactly what it feels like. To fall in love with someone like Finn. Looking for a certain reflection of yourself in the other person. Looking to be affirmed, understood. Seeing only the beautiful things at first, ignoring the flaws, until they grow in size and soon they are everything, and you are left wondering what exactly it was that you saw in that person in the first place, what it exactly it was that made you think you loved her.
So I guess, in some ways, this book accomplished exactly what it set out to do.
I fell for Women inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, and it broke my heart.