Last Day of 2014

The year is practically over so here I am again with my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2015.1

Books Out in 2014

This was my first year with a new solo novel since 2009. Five years in between solo novels!2 I was nervous but it seems to have gone quite well.

Razorhurst was published in July by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews have been blush-making. Including being named a book of the week by the Sydney Morning Herald, of the month from Readings Books and making Readings’ top ten YA books of the year and top 50 books by Australian women in 2014 lists, as well being the Australian Independent Bookseller’s No. 1 Children’s Pick for July. Although Razorhurst isn’t out in the US until March it’s already received starred reviews from the School Library Journal as well as Kirkus.

Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3

So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.

Books Out in 2015 and 2016

I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareIn India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.

“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.

Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.

Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.

I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!

The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.

The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.

What I wrote in 2014

I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.

And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.

Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.

I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.

I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2015

Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.

Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.

Travel in 2014

I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.

Reading and Watching in 2014

My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.

I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.

One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.

2014 was awful but there’s always hope

Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Argh. Make it stop!

May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. []
  2. Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. []
  3. If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. []

No More Bestselling Women’s Book Club This Year

Apologies to those reading along with us but alas, travel, deadlines, and sundry other things have crashed down upon Kate Elliott and I and we will not be doing the book club for the next few months. We hope to resume next year.

In the meantime you can find our discussions of the books we’ve already read here.

Thanks to all who’ve been taking part. We’ve learnt a lot.

No Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club This Month

Due to a terrible combination of deadlines, travelling, illness and other assorted calamaties Kate Elliott and myself will not be doing the book club this month. We’re bummed about it too. But life she threw too much at us this month.

We will be back in September to discuss Han Suyin’s A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is the first out of print book that we’ll be reading. I haven’t been able to find an ebook edition either. It’s truly out of print. Start putting it on hold at your library now.

You can see the schedule for the rest of the year here.

That discussion will be held: 30 September Tues in Australia and 29 September Monday in the USA.

BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)

Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.

Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. 🙂

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

Our Next Book: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) Join us at the end of August to discuss the first English book we’re looking at. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

  1. Pun intentional. []

Next on BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s Carol/Price of Salt (1952) (updated)

The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.

The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. Although it did not sell well as a hardcover it sold nearly a million copies as a Bantam paperback and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.

It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths,1 and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.

You can join in the conversation by commenting on the post where Kate and I share our thoughts which will go up next Monday/Tuesday and/or by joining in the twitter discussion with #BWFBC

Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.2

Update: I got some facts wrong about the book and corrected them. My source is the note that Highsmith wrote for a reprint of the book in 1989.

  1. No, obvious ones anyways. I think Carol’s husband could be one. []
  2. Yes, different timezones make for chaos. []

Melbourne Book Launch + BWFBC

I’ll be launching Razorhurst in Melbourne next Tuesday. Details below:

Razorhurst Invite Melbourne 2

Would love to see all you gorgeous Melbournites there! Yay, Batmania!

The Sydney launch went marvellously well. Thank you, so much to everyone who attended. I was overwhelmed.

Kate Elliott and I held the June book club over on Kate’s blog. We discussed the marvellous The Street by Ann Petry. This month’s book is Patricia Highsmith’s The Taste of Salt/Carol the first lesbian bestseller in the US with [redacted because SPOILER]. We’ll be discussing it on the last Monday (US)/ Tuesday (Australia) of the month.

BWFBC: Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956)

Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:

KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.

JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.

Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.

KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.

JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*

Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.

KE: Also a classic text on classism.

What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).

The juxtapositions are whiplashing.

OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG

JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.

Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .

It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.

Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”

KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.

JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.

KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.

JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.

KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.

JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.

KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.

JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.

It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)

KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.

JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.

KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.

JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?

Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.

It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.

There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.

KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.

JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?

KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.

JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.

This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.

KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”

JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.

The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.

KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.

JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.

KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.

JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.

The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.

KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”

So I can see why the novel was a sensation.

JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!

That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.

KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.

JL: Ha! I guess that’s our TL;DR: ENEMAS!

Our Next Book: Ann Petry The Street (1946). Join us at the end of June to discuss the first ever bestseller in the US by an African-American woman. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

Soon on Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub: Peyton Place

The Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub continues apace. This month we’ll be reading Petyon Place by Grace Metalious (1956). That’s right it’ll be a big ole dose of saucy New England.

When: Monday 26 May at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 27 May at noon on the east coast of Australia.

The discussion will take place here on my blog, where you will be able to check in at any time, and we’ll also be chatting on Twitterwith the hashtag #BWFBC

THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time. 26 May in Australia, 27 May in the USA.

We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Peyton Place.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: Rest of the Year Schedule (updated)

Kate Elliott and I have started a Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club together. Our criteria is that each book be a bestseller, classified as women’s fiction, be published between the end of World War One and twenty years ago. So no books from before 1918 or after 1994. We also decided not to look at any books by living authors. That way if we hate a book we can truly let rip. So far we’ve discussed Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls here on my blog and Ron Jaffe’s The Best of Everything over on Kate’s.

So that more of you can join in here’s what we’ve got planned for the rest of the year. All of these books are in print and available as ebooks except for A Many-Splendored Thing and Imitation of Life. Turns out Imitation is still in print in the US. We’ve scheduled it for September so you’ll have plenty of time to inter-library loan or find it second-hand:

  • March: Jacqueline Sussan The Valley of the Dolls (1966). Here’s our discussion.
  • April: Rona Jaffe The Best of Everything (1958). Here’s our discussion.
  • May: Grace Metalious Peyton Place (1956). This book was a huge blockbuster in its day and was made into an equally popular movie. I read and loved it as a kid but have memories of finding everyone’s behaviour very odd. This one was suggested by many different people. Here’s our discussion.
  • June: Ann Petry The Street (1946). I confess I’d never heard of this one until Kate suggested it. Ann Petry was the first African-American woman to have a book sell more than one million copies. Set in Harlem in the 1940s. I cannot wait to read this one. Here’s our discussion.
  • July: Patricia Highsmith Price of Salt aka Carol (1952). This was the first mainstream lesbian novel to not end miserably. Highsmith wrote it under a pseudonym. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Highsmith is one of my favourites but this book is nothing like her other books as it doesn’t make you despair of the human condition. It’s almost cheerful. Here’s our discussion.
  • August: Winifred Holtby South Riding (1936). Kate and many others suggested this one. I’d not heard of it. Here’s our discussion.
  • September: Han Suyin A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is set in Hong Kong and China. Suyin’s The Mountain is Young is one of my favourite books but I’d never read her most popular book Splendored. Partly because it was made into a crappy movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with an unspeakably awful song of the same title in 1955. I hate that song so much that it put me off reading the book. What can I say? Every time I read the title the song pops into my head. Like, right now. Aaaarrrgh! Here’s our discussion.

Then in October we’ll be doing something slightly different. We’ll be reading two books together. They’re both about a black girl who passes as white. One was written by a black woman, Nella Larsen, and was not a bestseller. The other by a white woman, Fannie Hurst, was a huge success and made into two big Hollywood movies. (I wrote a comparison of the movies here.) Interestingly it’s much easier now to get hold of Larsen’s work than it is Hurst’s. Even though in her day Hurst had multiple bestsellers and was crazy popular. When you read the books you’ll discover why. If you wind up skimming the Hurst we won’t judge. At all.

  • October: Nella Larsen Passing (1929) and Fannie Hurst Imitation of Life (1933). I’ve read both of these. The Larsen is far superior on pretty much every count. But they’re both fascinating documents of their time. (Passing is available as part of the collected fiction of Nella Larsen: An Intimation of Things Distant.) Here’s our discussion.
  • November: V. C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (1979). This one is mostly for Kate who for some strange reason has never read it. Me, I have read it multiple times. When I was twelve I thought it was the best book ever written. *cough* Why I have even blogged about Flowers. V. C. Andrews was my Robert Heinlein. Only much better, obviously. Here’s our discussion.
  • December: Barbara Taylor Bradford A Woman of Substance (1979). If I have read this I have no memory of it. I don’t remember the mini-series either. Again many people suggested this one. Here’s our discussion.

Thanks so much for all your suggestions. They were most helpful. Keep ’em coming. Maybe we’ll keep doing this next year. I hope so. We’d especially love if you can recommend books by women of colour that fit our bill. Even if they’re not bestsellers, like Passing, we can read them against what was selling at the time.

And, of course, do please join in. We’d love to hear what you think of these books in the coming months.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub: Best of Everything

That’s right me and Kate Elliott are continuing our Bestselling Women’s Fiction Bookclub. This month Kate will be hosting.

We’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1959). If you are a publishing geek you’ll love this book because it’s set in the world of New York publishing at the start of the paperback boom. Isn’t it fascinating how many women’s fiction bestsellers are about women at work?

When: Monday 28 April at 10pm on the east coast of the USA, Tuesday 29 April at noon on the east coast of Australia.

The primary focus of the discussion will be over on Kate’s blog, where you can check in at any time, but we’ll also be chatting on Twitter as well with the hashtag #BWFBC

THOSE TIMES AGAIN: Tues noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ Monday 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time

We’re looking forward to hearing what you think of Best of Everything.

BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Updated)

Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.

If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:

Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.

The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.

I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.

I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).

JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!

You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.

I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.

God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.

I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.

KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.

I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.

Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”

JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.

I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone. 🙁

KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.

There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.

JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.

It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.

All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.

Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.

Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.

It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?

I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.

Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.

The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.

KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:

1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).

I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.

Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.

JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!

1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.

Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.

I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.

Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.

The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.

I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)

KE: I have a few other comments.

We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.

Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:

“I love you, Jen—really.”

Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”

Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.

What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.

JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.

That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.

It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.

Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.

I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:

“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”

This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”


She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.

“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”

Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.


So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?

Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.

Some More on the Bestselling Womens Fiction Book Club or BWFBC (Updated)

Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.

Your suggestions clarified two things for us:

1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.

2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.

We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.

Update: We’ve both decided we won’t be looking at historicals.

Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).

  1. Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce. []

BWFBC: Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club

Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.

We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.

At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.

I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1

If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.

TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.

  1. Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. []