Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose

Publisher:        Bywater Books

Your sister.  For a woman, she's the person who knows you better than you do yourself sometimes.  She knows your secrets, your strengths and how to push your buttons faster than anyone else.  She'll torment you incessantly and then punch in the nose any bully who tries the same thing.  Sisters form a girls club unlike any other.

The title of Sally Bellerose's debut novel has a double meaning.  One refers to a lesbian bar that has particular appeal to one of the characters.  The other refers to the ultimate club shared by Marie, Renee and Cora Rose LaBarre.  Like most sisters they fight, they compete and they form a united front against the world, most of the time.  Cora Rose is the youngest sister and the focus of the book.  Her life is a jumble of issues from her conflict with her Catholic upbringing to the fact that she ends up married to a man she doesn't love because she tries to conform to what society dictates and ends up pregnant.  The truth is that her attraction is to women, but she doesn't know how to cope with it.  Leave it to her sisters to understand her needs better than she does.  Blunt, direct Marie calls her on the issue when they are still teenagers and sophisticated, beautiful Renee will help guide her to the light eventually.  In the process they deal with unplanned pregnancies, men who fail to meet their needs, drug and alcohol abuse, creating careers, dealing with family issues and the general struggle with life.  Cora Rose deals with two extra issues, her sexuality, which she doesn't understand, and a chronic illness dubbed the Dreaded Bowl Disease.  That last issue isn't one that normally appears in books, but it plays a central role in what happens.

Bellerose has created a book that doesn't easily fit into any category.  Cora Rose is a lesbian, but her life does not revolve around that.  There are no torrid love scenes to appeal to romance lovers, but there is a type of romance that develops between the sisters.  Their love for each other, even when it is disguised as something else, is the strongest relationship in the book.  There is no mystery or adventure here, except that which normally appears in life.  Instead there is a complex story of how people interact, especially within a family, and struggle to find direction in their lives.  Marie, the most direct sister, takes on life with a "take no prisoners" attitude.  Renee, the perfect child, is a study in unfulfilled potential and Cora Rose is a passive aggressive personality, letting life shove her from event to event, resenting much of what she is presented with, but basically incapable of directing her own story.  When she finally begins to assert herself and establish her own course, there is no surprise that the two people who are pushing and leading her along are the ones with whom she has spent her whole life. 

The title The Girls Club would seem to refer to the lesbian bar that Cora Rose can't resist, but it's really about a much more intricate relationship.  Readers will find much to relate to in this story as they recognize how the sisters interact.  Instead of depending on emotionally powerful scenes, Bellerose makes her point by letting the reader just watch the sisters and their lives unfold.  It has a slow steady pace, but it becomes clear by the end that the pace that is used is the only one that works.

This book won the Bywater Prize.  That means the reader can expect a story that is deeper and more intricate than the average lesbian novel.  It requires more attention than just sliding through a typical story of girls meets, girls resolve their conflicts and live happily ever after.  It's similar to watching an intricate dance or drinking a fine wine.  The reader won't get the full effect until the end.

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