This is one of those wonderfully written books that just seems to happen naturally when you throw all the characters together. It's a coming of age story, a coming to terms with belief and figuring out of self, and the lesbian part of the story is both a major thread and a natural part of that.
Ellie is a shy and studious teenager, sheltered and mostly content in the arms of her fundamentalist jewish family. The story opens with her family rushing out the door in different directions, with Ellie helping to shepherd her slightly scatterbrained mother, while her conservative father censors her elder sister's outfit. Her parents are leaving for a semi-pilgrimage holiday to Israel, their 'promised country', while Ellie is going to stay with her outgoing and independent grandmother in a holiday cabin in the woods.
Partway through her peaceful visit, as she learns to swim and struggles to observe Shabbos in the face of her otherwise supportive grandmother's disapproval, an attractive girl paddles past in a canoe, shows off a bit, and thoroughly captures Ellie's attentions. Lindsay isn't particularly interesting in playing with boring, intellectual, religious Ellie, but loneliness, and a well hidden mutual attraction pushes her to slowly lose the aloof attitude. They meet regularly, with Ellie becoming increasingly worried about her attraction to Lindsay, until it culminates in a kiss, and then they are separated.
Turns out they live in the same city, and Ellie tracks Lindsay down, heart in her mouth... to have it go nowhere for weeks, until Lindsay casually turns up again. In the meantime, Ellie is struggling with her 'wrongness', engaging in self harm and obsessive memorisation to attempt to distract herself from Lindsay. Her parents start up a program to convert people to being 'proper Jews', employing their daughters as role models and dinner props, much to the girls' increasing annoyance. Both girls are also increasingly unhappy about their planned future in religious education, with Ellie's sister planning to simply leave, and Ellie struggling to reconcile her faith with her desire for independence, her inability to change her sexuality, and her passionate interest in ecology and the natural sciences.
Ellie is a quiet, studious fifteen year old, who is very interested in ecology, the environment and natural sciences and longs to see the ocean. She enjoys the ritual of her home life, and feels spiritually part of Judaism, even while feeling increasingly trapped by her parents' fundamentalism.
Ellie's father, her Abba, is a very strict, prejudiced man. His parents escaped from concentration camps, and he internalised this as 'if the Jews had been more observant, it wouldn't have happened'. His parents did not have this view, I hasten to point out. Her mother, her Ima, is a dreamy, excessively spiritual woman, who drifted throughout her student life trying to 'find herself', from hippy to nun, and then, after falling in love with her husband-to-be, throwing herself wholly into Orthodox Judaism. She truly believes in it, and goes too far with it in her genuine attempts to convert and connect with God, to the point where she is thrown out of their local synagogue for singing so loudly that she interrupted a session, and the men heard her (her synagogue follows the rule of separating the sexes, something other synagogues don't do).
Her mother, Ellie's Bubbie, is a very lax Jew, who considers her daughter and son-in-law as ridiculously extreme. Bubbie is widow, of the independent, make up wearing, swimming naked in the forest, fashionista, who cares what other people think, type. Essentially, she's both a trial and an escape for Ellie, she's exasperated by her relatives and has little patience for Ellie's attempts at religious observance. Ellie's older sister Neshama has been desperate to escape for years. Much more worldly than Ellie, and with less patience for the spiritual and academic, she longs for fashion, freedom, and University. She also twigs to Ellie's clumsily hidden lesbian fling and actively supports her.
Lindsay is instantly recognisable as Ellie's opposite, and trouble. While Ellie is quiet, studious and oppressed, Lindsay comes from a rich and broken home, acts a lot older than she is, hitches lifts with random guys, sleeps around, and aspires to be a stripper. Whether Ellie really does bore her initially, or it's part of her 'I'm too cool' pose, or if she's simply too selfish or scared to actually reach out, I couldn't say. It does seem as if Ellie might actually matter to Lindsay - but more as a friend of her own age, something that seems rare in her life, and as a fun playmate. But whether she is completely unable to commit, or if Ellie is simply just not the right person for her, we never see enough of Lindsay to tell. And she has so many defensive layers, as she pretends to be older than she is, and more self assured, that it's difficult to judge where her normal personality leaves off and her disguise begins. I can say that she made it very hard for Ellie, and that it was never going to end well. Lindsay has problems, that don't magically fix themselves, and once Ellie recognises that, she walks away.
Which was actually a pretty awesome move - she liked being with Lindsay, and definitely enjoyed their make out sessions, and she could have pushed her issues aside and clung to what Lindsay would give her. Instead, she chose to accept it wouldn't get better, and that she could find another girl, one that she did fit with, and moved on. And this turned the story into a story about Ellie, not a story-about-Ellie-falling-in-love, which is an affliction of too many YA coming out novels (as in, it is an affliction because it is in too many of them).
Despite it supposedly being set in the 1980s (don't quote me, as I can't find any reference to that in the text), the story feels quite contemporary. While occasional mentions of magazines, films and celebrity crushes may date it, I didn't really recognise any of them anyway (or they're still around!). As for the religious culture - while it may seem out of date to some people, it could just as easily still exist.
Not being an Orthodox Jew, I can't tell how accurate the portrayal is, but I saw nothing jarring. There were plenty of details of services and daily life, and Jewish words - the glossary at the back will be helpful to people who aren't familiar with any of these. More importantly, the book showed that Jewish people have a variety of ways of interpreting 'how to be Jewish', and that Ellie's parents had chosen their own, extreme, way of life. But even if specific details were inaccurate, it's still a very good story of growing up in a rigid culture, and learning to come to terms with what you believe you should be, and what you actually are.
The political ramifications of the Israel-Palestine divide are hinted at, but passed over for the sake of the story. Although it is made fairly clear that Ellie's parents are too obsessively fundamentalist to have even considered it might be problematic to claim it as 'theirs'. Leanne Lieberman has written another, non-GLBTQ, book - The Book of Trees - that addresses this issue.
It's a very good book, with believable, well created characters. I would recommend it to adults and teenagers alike, both for the 'issues' (sexuality, dealing with crushes, religion, growing up), and simply because it is interesting to read. While much of the story deals with Ellie escaping from the life and mindset set out for her by her religious parents, it is ultimately sympathetic to Judaism, which flavours everything Ellie does, and shows how it can be lived in different ways, depending on the person (or rejected entirely, if they choose).
Gravity is available from Amazon, but not as an eBook.
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