Published by Short Drive/Long Flight Books, Women is the thickness of my index finger and nearly the height of my (rather small) hand. It’s not often that I can palm a book like a basketball. But for all its brevity, Chloe Caldwell’s debut novella packs a serious gut-punch. It’s about falling in love with a woman for the first time, about the crisis of identity that comes with it, about female friendship, the female body, and learning to accept yourself. It’s largely about rushing love and crushing heartbreak, but it is also pretty damn funny.
The story begins when our protagonist moves to a new city to get clean. She gets a job at a library, and begins to meet new people. This includes Finn, an older woman who works at another branch of the library. They talk about books and writing, and grow attracted to one another. Finn has a long-term girlfriend of ten years, but both parties stubbornly push that fact aside. Our narrator has never fallen in love with another woman before, and so we experience her searching and grasping for identity: “I did not know if I were straight or gay. This or that. Being in the middle was somewhere I did not know how to be.” Their relationship is intense, tumultuous—either euphorically amazing or terribly low. They are obsessed with each other, and the narrator likens it to a replacement for her drug addiction.
When it inevitably must end, it ends messily, fractures splitting and coursing into the future. The narrator goes on OkCupid dates and tries out writing classes, meets new people, all the while still occasionally seeing Finn. It seems nearly impossible to rid Finn from her system. Yet when she finally leaves the city and heads for home, she doesn’t say goodbye to Finn, at least not in person. The obsession and heartbreak have finally faded, in the way that the most intense feelings cannot be sustained. The story ends on a note of acceptance and resilience. Not so much “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” but rather, “we all keep going.”
I was struck by the immediate intimacy I felt with the narrator—it felt like that exhilarating moment in which you earn a person’s confidence and pass from acquaintance to friend, yet extended over the course of the story. The book feels deeply heartfelt. Although it is only semi-autobiographical, I was hard-pressed to imagine that all this hadn’t happened verbatim in our everyday, waking life; it seemed impossible that Finn was not real, but “an amalgamation of a dozen women,” as Caldwell states in an interview Lit Reactor. This is a testament to Caldwell’s skill at weaving plot and character to create fiction. It is rare that I am so thoroughly convinced by a story.
This verisimilitude is helped by its occasional meta-fictional narrative. Every so often, a passage will refer to the writing of the manuscript itself:
During lunch with an editor, he tells me that to write fiction, I should just make the situation go the way I want it to go. So I tried leaving Finn’s girlfriend out of the manuscript. But it didn’t work that way. Early readers didn’t understand where all the drama was coming from. Finn and I rarely talked about her girlfriend. Instead, we allowed her to be a looming tempest around everything we did.
The reader understands that what they’re holding is the result of process, that the narrator has written this book after several drafts and is now willing to share it with you. Of course, this is true, but the story, strictly speaking, is not. It acts as an interesting study in the fuzzy line between fiction and memoir, and the reader can never quite know which parts are “real”—although it hardly matters, since it all feels real.
The book situates itself firmly in the precedent of queer women’s fiction; hardly a few pages go by without a reference to Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson, or, in one case, The L Word. Caldwell uses these as tethers for her own book, and earns a spot for herself among those she references. She brings to the page such an urgency that it is impossible not to be swept up, to remember what it was like when we ourselves were so engulfed by another person that when we emerged, we had to struggle to find ourselves again. Women is a skillfully and engrossingly written novella, a small slice of overwhelming love and heartbreak, and the search for belonging and self. Caldwell proves herself as a writer to watch in the coming years.
Publisher: Short Drive/Long Flight Books
Pub date: October 1, 2014
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood