"I am trying to decide what you need to know about Finn before we start," the narrator of Chloe Caldwell's Women (SF/LD Book) sorts out aloud in the beginning paragraphs. "I don't know if I will be able to get you to see her the way I saw her. I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way that I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will." It's this self-conscious awareness that defines the hyper-intimate style of this novella, which excavates a doomed romance and personal reckoning.
The core relationship within the book is between the narrator and Finn, which develops from the narrator's loneliness as a new girl in an unfamiliar city. She's left her home and a quarter-century's worth of baggage behind in New York — lovers, drug dealers, her unnerving predilection for addiction and destruction. While trying to connect in a new place, she finds Finn, who stands out among coworkers and mutual friends. Finn is lovely, stylish, charismatic; older and wiser and settled into her identity like a favorite pair of boots.
The narrator feels a need and — quickly — an obsession to capture Finn's approval. The pair's relationship skips from friendly to sexual to toxic in all the magnetic, ruinous ways that two people mismatched in maturity and motivation devour each other. They have fights, power plays, vows that it's over, helplessness to keep emailing back — the reconciliations and falling-outs happen at a breakneck pace, with professions of love in one sentence and words designed to stab like a rusty shiv in the next. In the madness is truth, as anyone who has ever been in an awful relationship can attest to. We feel the revulsion feeding the attraction. The narrator and Finn suck us right into their mess, because Caldwell succeeds. We love them inexplicably. They authentically mirror our own bad decisions.
While Finn is absolute in her sense of self, the narrator is adrift. At the most basic level, she can't decide if she's gay or not. Is she attracted to women? Just to Finn? Or to anyone? The question yawns open and swallows everything she knows about her life, her self, her past, even the way she is telling the story. Can she remember this correctly? How can anyone convey the intangibles of chemistry that defies all boundaries a person constructed, all of the small, tender things a young person can cultivate to know about themselves?
What is refreshing about Women is its storytelling through the female gaze, and how this informs our questioning and resolution of identity. Women doesn't profess to be a feminist novella, and I didn't notice this distinction until I meditated on why the book feels so different from classic coming-of-age fiction and memoir. Caldwell describes her lovers and friends the way many women see and consider themselves: the way our bodies match other women, the way we diverge, the softness and confidence of Finn's "sweet spot" clothing style (a perfect balance of being butch and being approachable). The allure of other women that she conveys is in their ability to be natural and brilliant. There is a desire to have someone who has herself figured out accept you.
The women of Women are not concerned with being sexy in the narrow sense we're used to seeing, with a heroine obsessed with winning a man's desire. The longings Caldwell describe remind me of adolescent "girl crushes," particularly my own on Sara Stowe, the beautiful badass high school junior who smacked a girl who was making fun of my jeans. I loved her in that deep, transcendent way that eclipses the superficial attraction we're used to watching women clamor for. I loved Sara's heart. And her flawless cat-eye liner.
The urgency of the brief book is evident in the story, but also Caldwell's forward, frank style that remains sharp from beginning to end:
The quick transitions between bliss and hell, between our fights and apologies, are so extreme, so jolting. It feels so different from the men I have dated, who refused to engage in this sort of drama. Finn seems to be able to stomach it. In retrospect, I think I may have been testing her, pushing her, trying to scare her away. Not knowing how to walk away on my own.
The narrator must untangle this story on the page because it is her only way to make sense of it, to accept it, to consume and digest the chaos before it turns and eats her alive.
Women is reminiscent of the intrepid voice that Lidia Yuknavitch honed in The Chronology of Water. As in Yuknavitch's memoir, the beauty of the book rises between the contradictions it paints: the contradictions in our identities, our desires, our vows, our actions, our habits, and the inherent contradictions in telling any story. This is only one side, the narrator admits. Once it is told one way, the experience is another, and she's lost control of both.
Women captures the agonizing luminescence of young adulthood and the people who define and destroy us. It is one of the only books I can name that deals exclusively with female characters, with men pushed so far into the periphery they're practically in orbit. It is a breathless comet-book that commands an evening with your heart, and a next-day pass-along to all the women you treasure. You've been there, you can promise them. We all have.