Feb. 5, 2019
Grand Central Publishing
[that title is for my Carol people. they’re lesbians, Harold.]
Queer representation is really important to me. (I know, surprise). I had exactly no queer role models growing up, so seeing queer women in media was the only way I found out that I could be who I am *and* be a real, complicated, full human being. That’s the number one reason I seek out own voices stories: to see and lift up the voices that often aren’t heard, but are so crucial for people who are told by many loud facets of society that they are somehow less than because of who they are.
But also, I just love women-loving-women stories, so I was really excited to see Amy Feltman’s debut novel Willa & Hesper in Grand Central’s (an imprint of Hachette) winter 2019 catalogue. They had me at ‘lesbian love story.’
But this book defies that simple categorization. It’s more of a sprawling epic of internal growth, sparked by a love story.
Willa and Hesper meet in an MFA writing class (which earned this book another hard yes from me). The night they fall for each other is one in which a lot of other damaging stuff happens, especially for Willa. Their seven-month relationship ends up being the fast-spinning merry-go-round that flings both women onto their own separate but parallel paths. From Tbilisi to Berlin, New York City to San Francisco, each is on her own journey through family and cultural histories, evolving identity, and the turmoil of the 2016 presidential election.
There are so many things I love about this book. I like that there’s a slight age difference between Willa and Hesper, that they’re both writers, and that they both struggle with mental health. They both definitely fit the bill for complex characters, and the more queer complex characters the better. The way mental illness is portrayed — as a nuanced and omnipresent part of life that needs to be managed more actively sometimes — felt very real to me. The trauma of sexual assault that isn’t rape is also really well depicted in the complicated ways that it follows its victim through the highs and lows of her life.
And the dialogue is spot-on. It reminds me of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends in that is is so utterly millennial. That can feel grating at times if, like me, you are a millennial and you suddenly recognize how opaque you can be, but ultimately it makes for fast-paced reading and roots the story in a particular moment in time. Plus, there’s a lot of humor there that serves to lift a story that at times is quite dark.
Feltman also writes a great ensemble cast of characters that make great scaffolding for our protagonists. I especially love the relationship Hesper has with her sister Ada, but all of the supporting characters offer something interesting to the narrative. As a whole, having so many characters gives a sense of this story taking place in the world — a big world stuck through with fear and longing and confusion, and many different forms of love, and full of things you can and can’t control.
Plot-wise, a lot happens in Willa & Hesper, and by the end I really felt like I had been on a long journey of my own. The narrative includes meditations on faith, fear, sexual assault, modern queer identity and how fraught it can be and how malleable to circumstances, family legacy, and pop culture references. Willa’s Jewish identity was something I truly appreciated reading about, because I am not a person of faith and tend to shy away from anything religious, and it was fascinating for me to read a queer character of faith who is not Christian. Also, it’s a built-in reminder that naziism is alive and well, which is especially relevant to a story told around the 2016 election. Also, I’ve never read a story in which faithful Jewish person whose circle is very secular reckons with that, and I found it eye-opening.
Willa & Hesper does get a bit clichéd with its post-election moralism. I’m right there with the devastation the characters feel, but the dialogue in that section felt like a laundry list of all the things that white americans suddenly realized were so wrong with our country. Which is realistic to the moment even if it’s not that helpful in a larger sense. And while some of the traditional trappings of a debut novel can be found here — mainly a lot of flowery metaphorical language, and a real manic-pixie-dream-girl vibe from Hesper, especially at the beginning — I enjoyed this book immensely.
Even though I came for the lesbians, I so appreciate that this lesbian love story didn’t portray the relationship as the end-all-be-all of these characters’ lives. Ultimately I think I felt more invested in the characters specifically for this reason. I definitely recommend this book; it’s an engrossing and fast-paced read and a great addition to the queer lit canon.
I received a digital ARC from Grand Central in exchange for an honest review of this book. Opinions are my own.