Editor's Note: Guest blogger Allison McCarthy's writing has most recently been featured in publications such as The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, Ms. (blog), Bitch, GOOD, and Role/Reboot. She usually finds solace in sarcasm and iced coffee.
Jenn Crowell's latest novel, Etched on Me (Atria Books), opens in a delivery room as twenty-two year old protagonist Lesley Holloway rails against the U.K. social services' court-mandated removal of her newborn daughter from her custody. Their reason for separating mother and child? Lesley is a recovering self-harmer.
Despite her education, gainful employment, supportive chosen family, and successful completion of psychiatric treatment, Lesley is deemed unfit for motherhood because of her documented mental illnesses. Inspired by the story of mother Fran Lyon - who faced similar threats to have her daughter taken from her by the U.K. government due to psychological problems she experienced as a teenager - Crowell's novel captures the complexities of Lesley's intertwined experiences with maternal abandonment, sexual abuse, mental illness, and motherhood.
It's not surprising that Crowell's book has received accolades and positive mentions for the nuanced and sensitive portrayal of its main character. However, over and over again, many of the prominent mainstream and blog reviews of Etched On Me leave out the fact that Lesley is a queer-identified female main character who forms a romantic relationship with another female patient. And this repeated omission is far from accidental.
Publisher's Weekly euphemistically refers to Lesley's girlfriend Clare as "her roommate" in whom Lesley finds "solace." This is the sort of winking reference one would expect to find in Lillian Hellman's 1934 play The Children's Hour, not a book review written in 2014. Yet Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association, never even broaches the topic of Lesley's sexual orientation.
These are prominent critical resources for authors and readers; their inability to reference a sexual orientation which is neither explicitly straight nor gay speaks to a broader lack of understanding around queer identity within popular culture.
Though independent media such as blogs and reader reviews could have potentially filled the gaps of knowledge around this topic, few (if any) have opted to present the issue. Much like Publisher's Weekly, Chick Lit Reviews dances around the subject of Lesley's queerness by referring to the girlfriend as a "fellow patient" rather than "Clare." On community review site Goodreads, the book's sole one-star review states: "The explicit scene between Lesley and Clare was unnecessary and didn't add anything to the story. I stopped reading after that point."
In case it's not painfully obvious by now, there is clearly some visible discomfort around queerness.
Throughout the book, Lesley's sexuality is as complex as the rest of her identity. At bars, Lesley would repeatedly "wind up making out with some guy or girl, the two of us pressed up against the wall, my palms in his pockets, my hands in her hair."
She experiences a "careless, drunk, delighted" orgasm with the male cousin of a friend from university, an encounter which later results in her unplanned pregnancy. She fantasizes about being the wife of Nigella Lawson ("That's Mummy's wife," she says to her daughter, "She just doesn't know it yet"). Refusing to fall into the categories of "gay" or "straight" when asked about her sexual orientation, Lesley tells the psychiatrist writing her independent evaluation that she is "queer," even as she tells him (in her head) that it's "none of your flipping business."
There have been some encouraging nods of acknowledgment regarding Lesley's queer identity. Kirkus Reviews pointedly refers to Clare as Lesley's "first love... yet their sweet romance is doomed by Clare's religiously fanatic parents and the center's rules." But perhaps the strongest acknowledgement comes bestseller U.S.-based lesbian magazine Curve, which hails Lesley as "honest, frail, and strong all at once -- Lesley is set to become your favorite steel-boot-sporting, Kate Bush-loving, self professed 'queer' single mother of all time."
So I'd like to argue in favor of these deliberate references to Lesley's queerness - it's not a minor topic or a quickly dropped sub-plot; it's actually integral to the novel's development and Lesley's own self-acceptance. If Crowell's book can move across the intersections of motherhood, mental illness, abuse, and queerness, shouldn't more of the reviews highlight the breadth and range of these interrelated experiences?