Interminably solipsistic and frequently caustic novel debut about a ’70s college graduate’s first year of sexual conflict. The author has honed her craft in two story collections that are snappier (Darling?, 2001, etc.).
Having grown up on a farm in Connecticut sets naïve scholarship student Beatrice Wolfe apart from her swanky classmates at Vassar-like Sweetriver College in upstate New York. The stories Beatrice tells of her emotionally dramatic mother and banal, entrepreneurial father offer mordant raw material to her bossy lesbian comparative literature professor Philippa Sayres, who takes her young student seriously—for the first time in Beatrice’s life—by having a brief but meaningful affair with her. But thrust out in the real world upon graduation, and rejected by Philippa, Beatrice has to make a living by her liberal-arts education. Moving, inexplicably, to Hartford, and coming out of the closet to her nonplussed family, which begins to disintegrate on its own, Beatrice takes jobs in succession on a dietary assembly line in a nursing home, a women’s clothing shop, and, with final poetic justice, in the city’s public library. Beatrice’s involvement with a quirky, obsessive-compulsive insurance administrator, Lee, becomes her first defiant act of lesbianism. Meanwhile, Beatrice’s mother is divorcing her dad (and becomes involved with her teenaged student); one sister, 16-year-old Sylvie, gets pregnant and lives in a trailer with an ex-con; and another sister, Dolly, moves out to Wyoming protectively with Dad only to get hit by lightning. Schmidt’s chirpy dialogue imbues her characters with colorful vibrancy—Ma and Philippa, for example—while Beatrice’s bisexual torment is palpable, if irritating (“Once you were a lesbian, dreams came true,” she says cheerfully). Or has she found true love with her male boss and former addict with the snake tattoo, Stetson Tortola? There are a lot more sad, dotty, touching stories here, making for a long-winded, noisy narrative that simulates the mid-’70s Zeitgeist.
Very much a first novel with gusts of feeling and dervish-like direction.