A Very Disturbing Reunion
I just finished reading this novel that really showcases the lesbian/feminist/queer generational divide — 70s vs. 90s mostly. It’s hard to review because it is a hard book. It’s not hard to read — the grammar and the verbiage are very accessible. The emotions of the characters are very hard, very angry, very at-cross purposes much of the time. The central event around which all these women have come together is the murder of a young female art student, Emma, the bisexual daughter of Dana Firestein, one of the women of a 70s organization, Labrys. The primary point of view — though it goes through many of the women’s point of view — is Gwen Kubacky, the art student’s mentor (just prior to her death).
The conflict in this story is almost purely between the two generations – though there are still some intragenerational conflicts between the older women who all had different ideas what Labrys was and could do, or grow into, as a feminist organization of the 1970s. I was born just as the 70s were beginning, so I’m right smack between the two generations being depicted, which certainly made this book more an observation, than me reliving some aspect of my own history. There were a few characters who clearly were brought in because of their representation of different aspects of the 1970s feminists and queer community, but who themselves didn’t do much more than fill out the room of mourners – Elena Martinez, the powerful political broker, for example. But it is all to paint the various differences between the generations of women.
The older butch Lee, who has a past with Gwen, and the younger girl Kendra created the clearest contrast because Lee was so trying to get into the younger girl’s pants so badly they constantly were in scenes together. Kendra with her morphable sexual roles, from aggressor to kitten and back again with lightning speed, versus Lee with her comfort in the more direct butch-femme dynamics. I did find it interesting that beyond the Labrys reunion/post-funeral “reception” in the loft, we don’t really see or hear from the murdered girl’s mother Dana, who was the once all-powerful leader and in many ways still the activist model each measured herself against all these years later. But she makes a once out of the blue statement which seems to coalesce the women’s thoughts on what really has changed. Themselves.
The strains in JJ and Gwen’s relationship, not only as the past comes back into their lives, but as Gwen’s alcoholism struggles anew, give yet another subplot of tensions. Then Gwen’s AA mentor turns out to be the cop involved in investigating Emma’s murder, creating a tangle of conflicts of interest as some of the younger members of the group take the older women’s nostalgia as a present day call to action against Emma’s killer. Ayisha, who was Emma’s roommate, and longtime friend, is given only cursory sketch as she grapples with her grief over Emma’s death.
However, Gwen clearly is meant to be the protagonist. While, as I said, we do spend time in many of the women’s heads, it is in Gwen’s head when we really see the most change taking place – for me this is the mark of the protagonist, the person most affected, most altered by or driven, by events. It was an interesting choice. It was clearly the author’s choice to excise the story from its heavy grief angle to instead focus on the generational differences that fueled the interpersonal conflicts in the aftermath of violence when feeling threatened is a natural excuse for anger.
I could only absorb The Labrys Reunion in a couple chapter doses at a time. I’m glad I did though. It really did a good job telling the central story of women responding to a death among their own – whether distantly or intimately connected to that person. If not everyone grows as a result of the encounter, that may be less the author’s fault and simply demonstrate the faults of the characters.
The details of the New York City scenes were so real I could almost smell and feel the places around me. But it was a real kick in the teeth as I was faced with character after character facing how hard it is to communicate effectively between groups of people who have different experiences. I felt “accused” for this breakdown, and then almost commanded, certainly compelled, to do something to fix it. And I’m not even really represented by a character in the book. For someone who might see herself in one of the characters it’s gonna be a real tough book to digest.
But an extremely rewarding one. Reunions are about going back and seeing where you’ve come from. In The Labrys Reunion, Terry Wolverton points out the many miles we still have to go, even to connect within and among ourselves.
Review by Lara Zielinsky
© January 2010
laraz(at)lzfiction.nethttp://www.lzfiction.net/Host of "Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women's Fiction"http://blogtalkradio.com/Lara-