The jacket copy of Elizabeth Stark’s first novel, Shy Girl, presents the author as a Bay Area native who “writes about the lesbian culture of San Francisco in a wry, winning fashion,” and Stark’s heroine, Alta Coral, as “a young woman confident, even nonchalant, about her sexual conquests of other women.” But more than nonchalant, Stark’s self-described butch dyke Alta is appallingly sexist. In her roving eyes, San Francisco offers a parade of “fleshy” “blonde[s]” and “brunette[s]” with “layered eyes,” and flicking tongues, “one-night sweetheart[s]” as willing to be coaxed onto Alta’s motorcycle as Alta will be eager for them to leave her bed next morning. Any man who treated women with such insinuating lust would be a sad anachronism. Indeed, Alta plays the part with none of the wit that might deliver her performance into the realm of camp.
If Alta isn’t “winning,” she’s at least fully human, and in her underhanded way, womanly. Not humor, but anger and fear are the emotions camouflaged by her shaved head, and her job in a tattoo parlor accentuates her mixture of pain, self-empowerment, hunger, and vulnerability.
Shy Girl tells of Alta’s affair with a childhood neighbor, Shy, who abandoned Alta years past, leaving Alta, disowned by her mother, to live with Shy’s darkly secretive mother, Mrs. Mallon. When Mrs. Mallon becomes ill, it’s the adult Alta’s responsibility to find Shy and urge her home. The visit unearths Mrs. Mallon’s tragic history (which, incidentally, the reader figures out long before Shy and Alta do) and the legacy that Shy, pregnant, must carry into the future. Meanwhile, Alta’s groping infatuation with the “suggestive” “thrust” of Shy’s belly, an infatuation inflamed by some last-ditch trysts with safely anonymous femmes, struggles against the prospect of mature love and enduring partnership. Stark brings to this inspired, unconventional story an unfortunately lackluster prose that sentimentalizes her important message about bigotry, courage, and self-actualization.