Chloe Caldwell’s debut first caught my eye on Twitter, not with a storm of insistent shoutyness but a definite buzz. I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm in the face of unbridled Twitter delight but Women’s synopsis put me in mind of Sylvia Brownrigg’s riveting Pages for You which was followed last year by the slightly disappointing Pages for Her. Caldwell’s novella charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began.
Our unnamed straight narrator is living in her childhood home with her mother when she first meets Finn at a reading in the city. Both women are highly literary: our narrator is a successful young writer while Finn is a librarian, nineteen years her senior and long settled into a relationship. Three months later, our narrator moves to the city, determined to wean herself off her opiate habit, and begins a friendship with Finn which develops into an intense affair. Their time together is spent in each other’s beds while time apart is punctuated by a constant stream of texts and emails. Both are obsessed but Finn has much to lose. Our narrator slips into a self-destructive pattern which encompasses bouts of mania, tantrums and obsession. When Finn begins to extract herself from this relationship which has consumed them both our narrator becomes paralysed with grief until, just a year after Finn left a message on her Facebook page, she returns home.
Women is a short novella, a mere 130 pages – fewer if you consider its fragmented structure, some pages taken up with just a short paragraph. It could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I had expected. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. Her stripped down, plain writing emphasises the toxic passion of this affair which threatens to rip both women apart. We’re left wondering if this is love or simply the frisson of dabbling in a world about which our narrator knows nothing. Finn, it seems, is in no doubt, answering emphatically man when asked if she thinks our narrator will end up with a man or a woman. We know that our narrator is of the unreliable variety very early on: given the novella’s autobiographical element, let’s hope that means Finn is in heavy disguise.
Back in 2001, I was very taken with a novel called Pages for You. It was a love story, telling of the intense almost visceral affair between seventeen-year-old Flannery and her teacher Anne, ten years her lover’s senior. Since then I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Delivery Room, a very different novel. When I spotted Pages for Her on Twitter I immediately wanted to read it despite a niggling sequel worry. It’s a brave author who revisits her characters sixteen years after they emerged into the world but in this case, it’s a risk that’s paid off.
Flannery is now thirty-eight and married to a bombastic, self-centred yet affable sculptor, renowned enough to have an installation at the Venice Biennale. She’s the mother of six-year-old Willa whose conception prompted her marriage to Charles. Much to Flannery’s amazement, she loves being a mother if a little resentful of the hands-off Charles and bored by the circle of mothers she finds herself in. She has a bestselling memoir under her belt, a lightly fictionalised account of her search for the father she never knew accompanied by her lover Adele, best known for its raunchy sex scenes. Her more literary second book sank leaving little trace and now she’s blocked. She’s surprised to be invited to a conference on women’s writing but as soon as she sees Anne’s name on the schedule, she’s determined to accept. Meanwhile Anne has taken a lecturing gig on a cruise, hoping to lose herself in something different and turn her mind away from the rawness of her lover’s departure. A brilliant graduate student when Flannery knew her, she’s now a highly respected academic with a seminal work to her name and resolutely childless. When she’s asked to suggest a younger writer to invite to the conference, Anne thinks of Flannery. What will happen when these two women meet after so many years?
Brownrigg structures her novel into three parts. The first from Flannery’s perspective, full of domestic difficulties, love for her daughter and fantasies about Anne’s life. The second from Anne’s point of view, reflective on her long relationship with Jasper, her experiences on the cruise and her short stay with her sister in Venice with just a few thoughts about Flannery. The third section brings these two together for a reunion that one has longed for and the other has idly considered. It’s a very effective structure, neatly contrasting the two women’s lives, showing their affair from both sides and building a little suspense as we wonder how these once besotted lovers will find each other. Flannery’s character is particularly well drawn as she struggles with her egotistical husband while idealising the relationship she believes Anne shares with Jasper. It’s a pleasingly literary book, from the naming of Flannery and her daughter to the allusions scattered throughout, particularly in its final section. Brownrigg leaves the novel’s ending nicely open, possibly even enough to allow for a third instalment. That would probably be a step too far, although I’d be tempted to find out how Flannery and Anne get on in later life.