Back in the 1980s, a curious thing happened: Mainstream publishing suddenly “turned” queer when sales reps reported back from the field that gays and lesbians were big book buyers, starving for literature that portrayed their lives. By the early 1990s, there was an entire library’s worth of novels about coming out, coming of age, and AIDS, as well as gay mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, romance, and erotica.
While the repressive Reagan era necessitated books that were nothing short of out, loud, and proud, readers of gay literature eventually yearned for fiction that relied more on literary merit than sexual identity. They often turned to the pantheon of their forebears, like Patricia Highsmith, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf, writers who, if they hadn’t evoked gay life specifically, had certainly woven in a queer subtext. Or they discovered an emerging wave of new novelists who were not writing “gay novels” but who carefully integrated queer themes, characters, or undertones into heady, well-crafted narratives. Writers like Rebecca Brown, Colm Tóibín, Carole Maso, Michael Cunningham, and most recently Sylvia Brownrigg not only sustained a gay readership, they earned a wider audience.
In her first novel, The Metaphysical Touch (1999), Brownrigg depicts an intimate relationship between a woman with Sapphic inclinations and a suicidal man whose eloquent Internet postings have drawn him to her attention. While Brownrigg does not obscure her heroine’s sexuality, it isn’t the defining aspect of the narrative; the novel reads as a philosophical inquiry into the connection between the mind and body.
She strikes this delicate balance with similar grace in her new novel, Pages for You, a pitch-perfect evocation of a young woman journeying through a year of awakenings. Flannery Jansen is a gangly, spirited 17-year-old, sprung from a “one-horse town” in California and thrust onto the campus of an Ivy League university. From the colorful leaves of autumn (“They were so beautiful she wanted to eat them or breathe them, take them inside her, make them a part of herself”) to the jelly omelettes at the Yankee Doodle Diner, Flannery is eager to seize and relish as many firsts as she can, not least of which is masturbation.
It doesn’t take long for her to catch up. Even before classes are fully under way, she is smitten by a woman she sees in a diner, whose piercing green eyes are focused intently on a book. The woman turns out to be Anne Arden, Flannery’s T.A. for Intro to Literary Criticism, much to our heroine’s discomfort (and suppressed delight). She hasn’t been able to get Anne out of her head since that first sighting, and is struggling to understand the sudden infatuation; she has been attracted to men before, and “the word didn’t appeal to her. ‘Lesbian.’ ” To her mind, “it sounded slippery and gummy, or slightly nasal, like people with adenoid problems.” So what, then, does she want from Anne? “It’s just simple. It’s simple,” she explains to herself. “I just want to kiss her.”
Brownrigg exercises admirable restraint in pacing Flannery’s mounting obsession and her ensuing relationship with Anne. She captures the curiosity and hunger of first love, even as Flannery tries to keep herself in check. Just when we think our young heroine is about to lose faith, Anne returns her affections, slipping her a copy of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker, a collection of poems about an impassioned affair between an older and younger woman. This inspires Flannery to respond with her own poem, “Pages for You,” which opens a whole new realm of beginnings with Anne.
Here are two women irrepressibly drawn to one another, whose temperaments and stages in life couldn’t be more different. Flannery, a promising writer, is at the start of her sexual and intellectual life, while Anne, with her black leather jacket, jeans, and “pointed, pretty, argumentative boots,” is a reserved 28-year-old, a theory-head on the academic job market, wrapping up the final chapter of her own formal education.
Every time we see them together, Anne and Flannery are alone; neither introduces the other to her friends. Through the third-person narrator, who is particularly sensitized if not rather partial to Flannery, their insularity is exaggerated enough to appear as a literary device to intensify the intimacy and urgency of their relationship. We never do learn whether Anne has ever had a lesbian relationship before—we suspect she has—and it really doesn’t matter to Flannery, or to us. What is more crucial to the two women, and in turn, to the narrative, is the specter of unresolved business from Anne’s romantic history. The novel is not about the “idea” of two women in love, though Brownrigg’s unabashedly honest portrait of same-sex desire is certain to nourish gay and lesbian readers. But it is her invention of such a winning heroine as Flannery that will compel bookish types of all sexual orientations who recall the thrill and anguish of growing up to identify with her plights of passage. For this elegantly rendered, poignant novel is ultimately about awakenings both bright and rude, the intoxicating nature of desire, and the realization that love can devastate just as easily as it exalts.