BOOK REVIEW: Women by Chloe Caldwell

Women is a novella exploring sexual confusion, female friendship, being a woman, and being a daughter. The book is an urgent recall of heartbreak, a stark portrait of an identity in crisis.

Chloe Caldwell delivers a deliciously written novella in the shape of ‘Women’ the prose is tight and works well at opening the reader to the mind of someone who is confused about their sexuality and also coming to terms with her first experience of discovering her sexual identity with a woman called Finn; who is 19 years her senior. But as delicious as the idea was, the execution left me with a bit of a dodgy tummy.

The prose reads as if we are a fly on the wall, and I couldn’t help but think that whilst reading that I was listening to a dear friend discuss their woes, their heartbreak and their anger. It had me thinking of some counselling training that I had previously attended; where you learn the art of listening. Using nonverbal gestures to keep the subject talking, imparting nothing of yourself, aiding the person you are speaking with to come up with their own conclusions or answers for the situations and questions they have about their issues. I at times when reading were nodding along, seeing the errors of her ways, the hurt, anguish and resentment she had towards Finn. But I stayed silent and strapped myself in for the ride, being her silent companion for her designated course of action.

‘After sex with Finn, there is no clean-up time. There is no semen possibly inside of me. There are no bathroom trips. There is no worn-out towel laid down on the bed. No condoms on the floor or in the toilet. When we are done with sex we do not take separate bathroom trips. We stay in bed. Sleep, talk, fuck some more. There is so much kissing. There is deep delicious sleep. That’s my girl, sweet girl, Finn tells me when she is making me come. Five months later, when she does not say these things anymore, I notice.’

Having said I was carried away as her silent companion, I did struggle to find any connection with the characters; to me they didn’t feel fleshed out enough (cardboard cut-outs and stereotypes spring to mind), especially our main protagonist. I struggled to find any connection and was more of a passenger than an active reader in the process, caring little if she found love, sorted things out or got answers to the questions she was searching for.

I think if Caldwell had spent more time fleshing out her protagonists angst and what was going on with her inquisitiveness on this HUGE life decision and change; it may have been more engaging. But for me it fell a little flat, in the fact that when I finished I didn’t feel enlightened or affected in any way. I feel that the choice to make this huge life changing event a novella may have contributed to expelling the opportunity to dig deeper into character and substance.

I did enjoy the structure of the book, having various lengths of chapters was a great tool used well by Caldwell and worked at showing the protagonists state on mind, fleeting from one thing to another, it were as if we were glimpsing into the mind of our protagonist (or glimpsing her diary without her knowledge) showing her mental health and questioning and this helped add something to the writing style Caldwell sticks with throughout ‘Women’.

I am sure the book will find an audience and it’s fabulous to see a publisher printing LGBTTQQIAAP fiction, but for me I didn’t enjoy the actual story. It felt too much like a stereotype of a situation and failed to affect me in any way…for me it wasn’t real enough.

I also found that there was an awful amount of detail about their sexual experiences, sometimes in too much detail (my own preference), whether this was done for shock value or to educate those in how lesbians have sex…who knows? But for me this also served in cheapening the overall effect Caldwell was trying to achieve (as it crops up a lot throughout the book). Gone was the anticipation, the fear, the excitement, questioning and the longing of sex. It was all erased by the brashness and uncensored exploration of the act, leaving me thinking more of E.L. James’ ‘50 Shades of Grey’ or Monique Roffey’s ‘The Tryst’ shock value (fantasy value) to cash in, but for me it only served in cheapening the whole story that Caldwell does well to create, in her own unique and brash way.

‘In my memory it happens quickly – everything of hers in everything of mine. Fingers and tongue. Her palms on my back, her hands in my hair, her breath in my ear saying babybabybaby. I want you so bad, I say. I remember this surprising me. It rolled out of my mouth so naturally: I want you so bad. Where did it come from? Since when had I wanted her so bad? Why had I not been conscious of it? She puts me in different positions: fucks me from behind with her hand, on her face, against the wall, on the bedroom carpet. I moan. At one point I ask her how many and what is inside of me, and she laughs and says she doesn’t even know. Go have sex.’

Caldwell shows glimpses of her undeniable skill as a writer, delving into a story and topic that had huge potential; her unique style is refreshing to read and simplistic in its nature. Is it an important book? I think it may help people, may help those who are questioning their sexuality, may help shine a light on the huge decisions that lay ahead, and in a way I hope it does. But for me it was too brief, too stereotypical and the story lacked the depth it needed to really hit home.

Women is published by 4th Estate and you can purchase a copy here.

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Chloe Caldwell

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CHLOE CALDWELL is the author of the essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person (Coffee House/Emily Books, 2016), and the novella, WOMEN (Short Flight/Long Drive, 2014). Her first book, Legs Get Led Astray has recently been reprinted.

She is represented by Mel Flashman at Janklow & Nesbit.

She teaches creative nonfiction writing in New York City and online, and lives in Hudson.

Direct email: cocomonet@gmail.com

Chloe’s work has appeared in Lenny Letter, New York Magazine, Longreads, Vice, Salon.com, The Rumpus, The Millions, Catapult, Hobart, Nylon, The Sun, Men’s Health, The Nervous Breakdown, and half a dozen anthologies including True Tales of Lust and Love, Goodbye To All That, Fifty Shades of Blue, and Without A Net.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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