Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue (Harcourt, 2001)
It is hard to find a book that has nothing â€” or close to nothing â€” to do with romance. In lesbian author Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin, however, Mary Saunders' love is not for a man or for a woman, but for fine clothes and all the power and privilege they provide.
"That Immortal Soul that teachers harped on so much," Mary thinks as a young girl, "she'd swap it quick as a blink for the merest inch of beauty. A single scarlet ribbon."
Set in mid-18th century London, Slammerkin follows Mary as her desire for satin and lace takes her from a "lanky child in a grey buttoned smock," to a naÃ¯ve runaway whose entire belongings fit "into an old shawl," to a prostitute who can't "remember what innocence looked like."
While working on the streets, Mary learns two important lessons: "clothes make the woman" and "clothes are the greatest lie ever told." But these lessons fail her when she tries to turn her luck around and leaves London to work for a respectable seamstress out in the country. Despite the stability that the seamstress's family offers, Mary soon longs for the freedom and detachment of her former life â€” a life that eventually catches up with her.
Donoghue's prose is exquisite â€” whether she's describing a quick trick in a dirty London alley or the satin ribbon along the hem of a gown â€” and Slammerkin is filled with fascinating details about the 1700s, especially the lives of women.
The minor characters are diverse and rich, including: Doll Higgins, a prostitute considered old at 20; Abi, a woman from Africa who is "not a slave," but neither paid nor permitted to leave the house; and Mrs. Jones, the seamstress, whose benevolence stands in stark contrast to the racism and classism she eventually espouses.
But no one competes with Mary Saunders, who is as flawed as she is irresistible. A character, you'll find, who hardly has the time or the energy to fall in love.
Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage, 1994)
"Why is the measure of love loss?" asks the unnamed, ungendered narrator in Jeanette Winterson's classic Written on the Body. It's a relevant question and one that haunts the narrator throughout the following months as s/he falls in love with a woman named Louise.
The relationship between the narrator and Louise begins with a courtship of passion and betrayal, and takes several unexpected turns. Both characters struggle with their own host of demons â€” as tangible as cancer and intangible as the past â€” and in the process discover a new understanding of love, the body and the difference between emotional and physical commitment.
It's nearly impossible not to wonder about the gender, sex, race and even the age of Winterson's narrator. Though the story is centered in the speaker's mind, the variety of experiences prevents any attempt to categorize. By abandoning the traditional elements of classification, however, the narrator forces the reader to consider a range of possibilities, relationships and identities.
Many of the characters in Written on the Body are both masculine and feminine. Though Louise is extremely feminine, the narrator was also in a relationship with a woman who owned a scrap metal business. In flashbacks, the narrator speaks of falling in love with men â€” from the overtly masculine Crazy Frank, who had "the body of a bull," to Carlo, who leaves for another man and is the only character in the book to have an overt same-sex attraction.
Winterson's language is unparalleled, especially when writing about the human heart. "I am desperately looking the other way so that love won't see me," the narrator admits in the beginning of the book. "I want the diluted version, the sloppy language, the insignificant gestures. The saggy armchair of clichÃ©s."
But Written on the Body is far from a "saggy armchair of clichÃ©s." It is a meditation on love, identity, seduction and the body. "I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes," the narrator later says when s/he first meets Louise. "Never unfold too much, tell the whole the story."