Bittersweet

Nevada Barr
370 pages
1984

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
Meditations Divine and Moral by Anne Bradstreet

Every once in a while I will pick up a book that I know nothing about, and these books have the chance to surprise me or cause me to stop reading halfway through. To be honest, this book was something completely different from what I usually read. I think the thing that forced my hand was the title, and that it was the only lesbian book my e-library had. So without knowing much more than that, I picked it up (figuratively of course).

The main plot of Bittersweet is the struggles of two very different American women in the 19th century. It shows the struggles they and all other women faced at this time when the West was a new frontier. The story starts in Philadelphia and slowly works its way out west, past Reno, Nevada. Ultimately the two women struggle to find a place they can live in peace. Imogene is the older, giant of a woman, who is a school teacher. She is being forced out of town because her relationship with one of her female students was discovered. With the help of her old school master, she finds a placement further out west in a mining town. As quietly as possible, she tries to settle in and keep to herself, and hide out from the brother of her former lover who will take any opportunity to ruin her life.

In the new town is a young girl, Sarah, who is immediately drawn to Imogene. But Sarah has obligations to her family. Soon after Sarah graduates, she finds that instead of furthering her education, she is to marry a friend of the family (a man who does not believe women have any need to be educated). While the marriage is not happy, and causes a stronger bond between the two women, Sarah is thrilled to have a son. However, the happiness cannot last (remember the title of the book?).

The brother from Imogene’s former lover sends a letter informing the town why she had to leave her previous post. Just when people start to believe Imogene’s side of the story, an angry former pupil lies and claims that Sarah and Imogene had committed the same acts. Knowing there will be no way to salvage the situation, Imogene packs the despondent Sarah up and they flee out west. The story continues to follow them as Sarah slowly recovers and starts to become aware of her own feelings. Imogene must continue to look out for the woman she loves. They find brief periods of happiness, but must always be aware that one slip up means that they will have to flee even further.

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the book. In fact, I did find it hard to put down. However, it is not a book with one climax, but instead the plot rises and falls with each new challenge the women face. It almost becomes a bit repetitive, and I did find myself getting a little angry with the characters for making the same mistakes over and over. But ultimately, I was cheering for them, especially Imogene. I feel that even though I did not like the times when they were being forced to flee, this made the brief moments of peace even more beautiful. At times I was very much reminded of The Children’s Hour (the play/movie), where even lies can ruin lives, especially if there is kernel of truth buried in them. Even in the happiest moments of the book, there is a tension because they are always so close to losing everything. But the quiet moments that the women are able to spend together show the readers why it is worth fighting for.

That being said, there are several drawbacks to this novel. One would be the overall predictability of the story. But I think Barr does a good job keeping things interesting. However, parts of the dialogue feel a bit anachronistic or mixed. Overall, the characters try speaking in a more old fashioned way, but certain phrases seem to break that image, and it almost feels as if it would have been better to just stick to modern language. There are also several glaring editing slips, ones that one would not expect in a published book.

Overall, I am glad that I read the novel. Unless you are a fan of historical dramas or looking for a bittersweet lesbian story, however, I would not recommend it to you. So this is a middle of the road novel.

Final Verdict: Smooth Sailing – only read if it fits one of your interest areas, but don’t expect to be blown away.

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