Claire is the assistant of a small, but increasingly successful, New York art gallery, a job she got through her mother's connections, under the thumb of a reasonably unpleasant little man. Isabelle is the young, forward and overwhelming Italian artist that arrives for a show and takes an interest in Claire.
While the attraction is mutual, Claire is too busy denying her emotions, pacifying her manipulative mother and getting to know her estranged father to be interested. That, and she can't quite tell if Isabelle is just playing the Italian flirt, or truly, exclusively interested in her. And of course, she's part of Claire's job, now, so can't be ignored - but also has to be handled carefully.
Meanwhile, Claire spends a lot of energy dealing with her mother, isn't really connecting to her boyfriend, and is becoming much closer to her serious father and his flamboyant partner. All the while dealing with the fact her mother views this as the ultimate betrayal and has devoted years to cutting her gay ex-husband out of his life. Along the way, we get flashbacks to Claire's disastrous engagement, life with her mother and first (female) lover. Basically, it's an overload of family history, with us coming in at the tipping point, with Claire carrying us along on her personal psychological journey, while her siblings find their own ways of coping (or not).
Anyway, Isabelle goes home again, leaving fireworks in her wake, and Claire falls into an ultimately dreary relationship with another local artist. This at least has the benefit of letting her establish herself as lesbian, as well as giving her a believable period to 'grow', before she finally loses her job, goes travelling and at last meets up with Isabelle again.
And they share mutual angst, and have a delightful fling (with a lot of laughter, and real affection and connection), Claire falls hard and they have to decide what they actually want from each other. Also, the sex was a lot of fun, and very enjoyable to read.
Claire's family has a lot of issues, and much of the story is about her learning to let go of that and disentangle herself, rather than solving everything. Some people you just can't solve. The mother-daughter-gay father relationship was quite similar, initially, to the one in Finders Keepers [reviewed here], but instead of just needing to 'understand' each other, here Claire had to learn to disengage. So less satisfying, but more interesting and more identifiable.
I liked the fact that it was not completely predictable, and both characters in the romance had real issues, that impacted on each other and the plot. The romance... wasn't entirely straightforward and may prove unsatisfying initially, to those looking simply to be swept off their feet, but it had depth and growth. In fact, initially, there was no romance - both players were attracted to each other, but went about it all the wrong way and ended up in mutual awkwardness. And then the main character grows as a person, opens up and defeats some of her personal problems, and meets Isabelle again when the latter is a little older, and a lot more mature. Although still passionate and somewhat giddy, and she still insists on calling Claire 'Clara'.
Something that added a fair bit of depth, and changed the entire thrust of the storyline, was that their romantic encounter was not the sole defining catalyst and creator of the New Claire, but more that as she changed (because of herself, the people in her life and her therapist), her attitude and openness towards falling in love (or admitting it!) also changed. Until she was relaxed and mature and free enough to travel and fall into her darling's arms. And have it start to work out, despite their mutual hurdles.
There's also a cameo appearance from the 9/11 attack - thankfully, the details aren't belaboured (although this might be a bit confusing in a few years, or if you aren't particularly aware of what actually happened), and the focus is on Claire rescuing her father, the confusion, the people in the streets, and the effects on her relationships as people phone each other, or don't, or try. But it's a handy defining character moment for Claire, and nicely illustrates the emotional ties to the various people she knows.
Her father and his partner are my favourite characters, I think - an interesting, stable and loving couple, who complement each other well and are delighted to have a daughter who wants them in her life.
While it's not one of the Lesbian Literary Greats, it's a pretty fun read, and easy to get into. Pick this up if you like reading about backstabbing relatives, learning to unwind and grow up, and the art world. Or just an ultimately happy ending romance with a few tears and miscommunications, but not too many cliches, along the way.
You can buy it on Amazon in both Real Paper and eBook format, for about $11 and $7 respectively (though it just came out this year so that may change).
You may also be interested in: