While the holidays are approaching fast and your schedules are probably filling up just as quickly, here are some new releases from lesbian authors to check out if you happen to find a moment to escape into a book: When We Were Bad, Charlotte Mendelson’s brilliant take on a family that will make your own seem normal; Pink, Jennifer Harris’ hilarious and surprisingly poignant first novel; and Hack, Melissa Plaut’s memoir about life as a New York City cabbie.
When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson (Houghton Mifflin)
“The Rubin family, everyone agrees, seems doomed to happiness.” So begins When We Were Bad, Charlotte Mendelson’s new novel about a prominent Jewish family living in London.
Whether or not “doomed” is the right word, the Rubins are actually working toward some degree of happiness. The doomed part, perhaps, comes with how each member balances his or her desires against the interests of the entire family — because, as we all know, the two are not always compatible.
The book begins at the wedding of firstborn son, Leo. The community is abuzz with excitement over the match, most of all Leo’s mother, Claudia, matriarch and celebrated rabbi. The ceremony is momentous not only because her son is getting married, but because it offers a prime opportunity for Claudia to showcase the Rubins at the precise time that her book — about family life, of course — is due for release.
Things don’t go as planned, however, when reliable ol’ Leo abandons his bride at the altar and runs away with another rabbi’s wife. As the Rubins struggle to recover from this very public blow, more cracks in the surface begin to emerge.
Like any family, the Rubins have their fair share of secrets. In Claudia’s attempt to hold everything together — career, money, reputation, even the lives of her children — she conceals and ignores pressing heath concerns.
Her husband, Norman, retired professor and the author of several unread books, is about to publish a biography that, for the first time in his career, is expected to make an impression. Norman’s intentions are good — he does not tell his wife about his upcoming book so that the spotlight continues to shine on her as long as possible — but the secret ultimately threatens the very foundation of their marriage.
And Leo is not the only one of the Rubins’ four children to cause trouble. Simeon, the family bully, lives at home and rarely leaves his room for anything good. Emily, the youngest, though still very much a grown woman in her 30s, resists growing up at every possible turn. The most interesting of the children, however, is eldest daughter Frances.
From the outside, Frances is the most together. Married with two stepchildren and an infant son, she has a successful career as a literary agent. Beneath the glossy surface, however, Frances is unraveling. Her maternal instincts have not kicked in, she is tired of taking care of her parents and siblings, and she is no longer in love with her husband — that is, if she ever was in the first place.
Things change for Frances when Emily brings a new date to a family event, a man named Jay who turns out to be a woman. Frances is enthralled with Jay, and the two soon begin a secret friendship over the phone. Jay not only provides the perfect outlet to assuage Frances’ discontent, she also forces her to wake up and finally take stock of her life.
In an effort to redeem the family, Claudia arranges an elaborate Passover meal and invites everyone who is anyone from the community. It is the perfect setting for disaster, and Mendelson maintains the tension as each character believes he or she alone is responsible for the family’s downward slide — a slide Claudia tries to prevent by focusing on all the things she can’t control, rather than on herself.
Mendelson, whose other books include Love in Idleness and Daughters of Jerusalem, writes in startlingly beautiful prose. When We Were Bad is quite simply the kind of story — witty, sad, true — that you won’t want to end.
Pink by Jennifer Harris (Harrington Park Press)
The narrator of Jennifer Harris’ ingenious first novel, Pink, is spiraling. Tired of walking into bookstores and wondering why she is not among the many authors lining the shelves, she is lost in the fantasy of what will happen when she publishes her first book. “When” is the operative word here.
The book will “make men sigh and bring tears like the best movies.” It’s not an actual self-help/love/discovery book, but it will sit next to those books on the shelf. Most importantly, it will bring the narrator fame, fortune, friends and love.
Harris weaves together several different threads, providing the narrator with a unique, beguiling voice. Though the prose is written in the future tense, we learn most about the narrator when she refers to her present or past self: “My book will not have witty metaphors for my loneliness the way some authors do. Instead, my little pink book will mask all of this; it will make people think that I have always been this lovable thing, this person everyone wanted to know but didn’t.”