The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?
The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.
Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.
Meet The Author
Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh Review, Horizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology
She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course.
Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.
She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND