Feltman's debut follows two MFA students who fall in love, break up, and learn how to heal on their own.
Emotional and intuitive, Willa is the kind of person who makes "everything [hurt] a little bit extra." When she sees Hesper, another writer in Columbia's MFA program, at a late-night diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she is instantly attracted — but unsure how to negotiate Hesper's enigmatic style of flirtation. "I thought: she has to be gay," Willa muses. "She has to at least be in the vicinity of gayness." Their short-lived relationship is filled with ups and downs, as Willa struggles with the weight of sexual assault and Hesper contends with her own queerness and fears of intimacy. "I ruin people," Hesper tells her father late in the novel. "And I don't want to be close to people anymore. I don't want to have to look at them after they're broken." In order to heal from the breakup, Willa signs up for a tour of German concentration camps, and Hesper travels with her family to Tbilisi to uncover her grandfather's roots. The novel ends in the shadow of the 2016 election and the Trump presidency, when its characters must confront questions of trauma and belonging with a new sense of urgency. Writing in alternating first-person chapters, Feltman renders each perspective with moving fidelity to her characters and their interior lives. When Willa worries that "loving me had an expiration date" or Hesper feels "radioactive with depression," there's not a whiff of ironic distance or judgment. It's an impressive feat for any novelist working in the shadow of TV shows like HBO's Girls or novels like Emily Gould's Friendship, which attracted outsized criticism for their depictions of "unlikable" young women coming up in the city. The result is a deep and intimate portrait of two queer women in their mid-20s who come of age in New York while navigating—or refusing to navigate—their relationships to privilege, family, identity, and faith. What could be a novel about an intense attraction that falls apart is, in Feltman's hands, a bigger story about how people change us—and how we welcome or resist that change.
A moving glimpse into 21st-century queer womanhood.