by Chloe Caldwell
Short Flight / Long Drive Books, 2014
Review by Maura Lammers
June 11, 2015
Chloe Caldwell's slim and sensual new novella, Women, defies labels. It is not merely a love story, or a story of sexual awakening, or a coming out story, but a story about two women wrecking each other's lives during an illicit whirlwind romance. This is Caldwell's second book, a follow-up to her essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray (2012), and I was happy to discover the prose carried her characteristic bite from nonfiction to fiction. Women is described as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” and Caldwell has stated in interviews that the book is based heavily on her first relationship with a woman. Even without that disclaimer, avid Caldwell readers would not have trouble identifying traces of Caldwell's idiosyncrasies in the nameless narrator. The novella opens with the narrator describing Finn, a lesbian nineteen years her senior, and after revealing that their meager yet intense relationship has already fallen apart, the narrator notes, “Isn't it sad to talk about ex-lovers in the past tense as though they are dead?”
Caldwell's exuberant writing style is like waking up with an old college friend hungover in your bed who can't wait to confess everything she did the night before over a cup of coffee. Her work is frenzied and wild one moment, and wincingly tender the next. Although sentences can be deceptively simple, she creates an irresistible rhythm on the page, tugging the reader along with ease, even when the conflict between the women becomes murky. Finn has lived with her partner for over ten years and won't leave her, a fact that the narrator refuses to closely examine with the reader. Thus begins a toxic relationship not isolated to any gender and sexual orientation, consisting simply of two people who should never have fallen in love in the first place, but did. In the latter half of the book as Finn and the narrator break up and make up, we spend too much time listening to their arguments, as they accuse each other of being manipulative or other vague condemnations. It's the kind of circular, hurtful back-and-forth all doomed couples engage in that any outsider can say is useless, and it failed to add complexity to the characters.
However, Caldwell skillfully harnesses the energy and wrench of emotions in her narrator's downward spiral with Finn and without Finn. For readers who ever endured an earth-shattering breakup, scenes of the narrator seeing a therapist for the first time, or fixating on clothing items Finn left behind, or remembering the way Finn liked her coffee made or hamburgers cooked, are cringe-worthy in their familiarity. As a recovering addict, the narrator knows that she struggles with moderation, acknowledging, “I never want to feel okay – I want to feel better than average.” Fittingly, her moods swing between highs and lows, from depression to mania, as she recovers from leaving Finn. Here is where Women truly succeeds, with the narrator's self-recognition and the revelation of a comfortable gray area between her usual black and white extremes.