Monday, August 15, 2011
Greetings From Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer by Mari SanGiovanni
Publisher: Bywater Books
It's always a nice surprise when a book turns out to be more than was expected. Most reviews of Greetings From Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer are devoted to talking about the humor and the unique characters. To discover that it also contains some pointed commentary about the difficulty of being a lesbian in America was a bonus.
Marie Santora is certainly surrounded by unusual people, most of them family members. Her life is pretty much in a rut with a job she doesn't like and a cheating girlfriend, until the grandmother that everyone hated decides to leave her fortune to Marie as a way to spite the whole family. Now Marie can move to California and pursue her dream of being a scriptwriter, but not until she takes the entire family on a consolation trip to Jamaica. That alone makes her siblings suspect that she's slightly unbalanced.
While they are there, they meet television star Lorn Elaine and her mother. Marie would very much like a relationship with Lorn, but there are complications. For one, Marie's family, through a misunderstanding, thinks that Lorn is already Marie's girlfriend and, if she's not careful, they may convince Lorn that Marie is either a stalker or a psychopath. The other problem is that Lorn is so deeply in the closet that she could be in the next house and she is not interested in a relationship that could threaten a career she has spent most of her life protecting.
Between her crazy family, Lorn's hot and cold behavior and the unexpected appearance of the ex-girl friend, Marie rambles from one funny situation to another trying to find a way to make all of the pieces fit into her life without self combusting. The back cover features a picture of a sandal with a meatball sitting in it. If that doesn't tell you this book is full of laughs, then the caption that SanGiovanni provided for her picture certainly will.
What was unexpected were the insightful comments SanGiovanni had to make about being a lesbian in a straight society. At appropriate points in the story she remarks about things that most lesbians relate to. When you walk into a room just how do you identify who is "family" and who isn't? Contrary to popular fiction, most lesbians don't have gaydar and there isn't a secret handshake or neon sign to help you out. Is a smile just a friendly gesture or an invitation to something else? How do you convince your relatives that you really aren’t going to change your mind even if they do fix you up with the "right" man? That the woman you've been bringing with you to family gatherings for years really isn't just another attempt to give your mother a heart attack.
By watching the Santora family, the reader also gets a clear picture of how important family can be in shaping a person and Uncle Tony shows how deep and abiding love can be. None of this is delivered in a heavy, lecturing style. The lessons are delivered with humor and twine within the story quite easily. That means the reader is often learning something before she realizes it.
Welcome To Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer would probably be just as funny if it were about any ethnic family. Because Italian Americans are generally known for their bigger than life emotions, that just adds to the fun. You can almost hear the women saying in chorus, "Laugh. Learn. Enjoy." You'll do all three.