In As You Like It, Shakespeare described lovers who, like Juno’s Swans, were “coupled and inseparable.” He could have been referring to Nina and Sarah, young women who meet during a summer theater workshop on Cape Cod.
Nina is just 17; Sarah is a slightly older college student working as an assistant acting coach in the program Nina attends. Virtually immediately, the pair fall into head-over-heels love; within a week, they’ve moved in together and seem to settle into a tranquil domesticity. They’re discreet but not closeted. Sarah has had other lesbian romances; Nina has not, but she’s more than willing. In fact, she’s hungry for attention and affection, having already experienced a shocking number of upsets and difficulties: Her father abandoned the family when she was a child; her grandfather committed suicide; her mom seems more interested in her career than in parenting her only child; her grandmother has begun the descent into age-related dementia; and an affair with an older, male teacher during her junior year of high school has left her confused, disturbed, and disgusted. Traveling from her New Hampshire home to Cape Cod, Nina reasons, will be an adventure. Initially, her plan was to travel to Wellfleet with her best friend, Titch, attend class, and work at a catering hall, a trio of activities that she believes will prepare her to survive her upcoming senior year. But once Sarah enters the mix, the plan goes awry. Suffice it to say that what unfolds is by turns tragic, heartfelt, funny, and charming. Set during the Reagan years, the novel has a backdrop of the burgeoning HIV-AIDS crisis and the post-Stonewall emergence of a strong LGBTQ movement, and numerous pop-culture references add authenticity. The strains that often emerge between women—among them, Titch is furious about being abandoned by Nina—are showcased, and when Nina ultimately gets jilted, the searing pain of a broken heart is rendered evocatively but without melodrama or sap. It’s first love writ large. Thanks to numerous supporting players—other students in the theater class and several neighbors and co-workers—the book not only situates the relationship in a broader political context, but makes time and place vivid ancillary characters.
Captivating and achingly realistic, this is a stunning debut.