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Book Review : Lesbian Love in Small-Town America

October 20, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Love of Good Women by Isabel Miller (Naiad: $8.95.)

This novel is passionate, not at all in a sexual sense, but in the sense that ideas are being hammered out--ideas not necessarily recorded in a fictional form ever before--and the author is passionate about those ideas. "The Love of Good Women" compares almost exactly to "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as a speculative examination of how sex and economics clash, or impinge upon each other. In each novel the author is so bedazzled by his/her vision that while the novels may "fail" if scrutinized as fiction, certain particular scenes may stay in the reader's mind forever, as exempla of certain ways of living, of approaching the external world.

"The Love of Good Women" is a tract about lesbian love (just as "Lady Chatterley" was a tract about heterosexual attractions). The story begins with two women in a small town in the latter years of World War II. Milly is married to a man she admires but cannot desire. She's told him often enough--if she had her choice she would be lover to a woman. Naturally (and the author is being ironic here), Milly's husband, Barney, who owns an automobile garage, and is currently off fighting the Japanese, dismisses his wife's confessed sexual preference as a whimsical aberration. If she must do those things, at least she can bring her young women home--he'd find it titillating. Milly is desperately unhappy, of course, frantic; boxed in by the cruel truths of her biology.

Her young, pretty sister-in-law, Gertrude, on the other hand, considers herself to be a very happy and lucky little lady. Gertrude is married to Barney's feckless younger brother, Earle. She has four children who treat her as a charwoman, a husband who makes fun of her taste in clothing, furniture and speech. Earle is terrible in bed as well, but what can Gertrude know about that? She's been married since her teens, and has been an ever-faithful wife. Not only is she faithful, she keeps the house spanking clean, makes marvelous meals for her houseful of swinish ingrates, and manages to do all this on almost no money a month. A perfect wife is what we're talking about here.

Story Picks Up

A certain kind of trashy fiction would find Gertrude and Milly falling for each other, and certainly Milly does find Gertrude appealing, but "in those days, Milly was in danger of loving any woman who held out her hand and some who didn't." What does happen seems far more true to the circumstances of the novel. Earle, in a classic fit of "killing the golden goose," insists that Gertrude (remember, that's his compliant wife who works like a galley slave at home for him and is paid only in the coin of contempt), go to work in a war plant to supplement his inadequate income. This is where the story begins to get interesting.

In a series of awkward but hideously realistic set-pieces, Gertrude at first has her money stolen by her husband, stops keeping house, finally stands up to the wretch she's married to, and falls in love with--not Milly, but Milly's sweet husband, Barney.

Milly, on the other hand, has fallen in love with a woman, and is experiencing the culture shock that happens when our dearest fantasies become reality. After all, Milly's married. She has a husband and three kids. Her woman friend has a child as well. The whole world, particularly this land-locked, small-town rural world they live in, is heterosexual to the core. To get what she wants, Milly must be prepared to give up all that she has.

Out of the System

If a woman has a job and a car and children--and is not trapped by a biological or emotional desire for a man--she is absolutely out of the system, either a pariah or free, free as the proverbial bird. A woman who does not desire men does not exist, in men's eyes, and from this position of invisibility, all things are possible: even happiness.

In a scene as original and strange as the working-class tea party in "Lady Chatterley's Lover," the principal characters here are entertained by a lesbian couple who speak about living a wonderful life in a patriarchal society that cannot see them exist. . . . The point here, in this novel, is not to endorse female homosexuality, but gently to suggest what might happen in the capitalist structure of supply and demand, if the demand for men were drastically curtailed.

An unsettling, wildly political book.

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