Book Review: Pulp by Robin Talley
In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.
Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.
In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.
I really enjoyed this. For a while, I felt conflicted—I wanted more of Janet’s 1955 story, in a more linear way. I wanted more of Abby’s 2017 story, same deal. I wanted more of Janet’s novel, and, sorry Abby, maybe less of Abby’s. But, eventually it all really started to come together and in the end, was super satisfying.
In 2017, high school seniors Abby,who’s a lesbian, and Linh, who is bi, are “just friends,” having broken up prior to the past summer, but Abby isn’t happy with that arrangement. It’s complicated, because they’re still best friends and hang out all the time. Linh is driven and doing all the right things to prepare for college applications. Abby is floundering a little—she’s lost her girlfriend, her parents are never around (and seem like they can’t even be in the same room together), and she can’t get started on her senior project. She finally settles on researching 1950s lesbian pulp fiction, deciding she will write about the novels, the circumstances surrounding that time period and the novels, and try her hand at writing a pulp novel, with a twist. Her research leads her to reading a book by Marian Love, which then leads her to kind of an obsession about finding out more about the elusive Love while she also works to figure out her own love life, changing relationships, and her future.
Back in 1955, we meet Janet Jones, an 18-year-old who has recently come to the realization that she likes other girls—a revelation that becomes clear to her after she steals a lesbian pulp novel and is amazed to find that not only do other girls feel like she does, but there’s a word for her, a lesbian. Her feelings for her close friend, Marie, are reciprocated, but unlike Abby’s reality, in 2017, of acceptance and support and (for her) the freedom to be out and feel safe, Janet and Marie face a different reality. In 1955, they are in the midst of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare. There are plenty of reasons to deny their feelings and hide who they are, but despite their fear, the girls pursue a relationship. Janet writes to the author of her favorite pulp book and then begins writing her own book, envisioning a future where she and Marie move to New York, free to be out and accepted by other people like them. But it’s not that simple—and in fact, Janet’s story becomes far more complicated than most readers will see coming.
I always enjoy Talley’s books, but I particularly liked this one for the historical perspective it provides. I don’t think anyone would say that being out is necessarily safe or easy, even in 2018, but 1955 was certainly a more unaccepting time. Younger readers may not know much about the lesbian novels of the 50s, McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, etc. Janet and Abby’s alternate narration provides a clear contrast between the eras while also linking together their experiences. Abby’s quest to learn more about Marian Love is really engaging, especially once she begins to make some (unexpected) progress on her search. Though for a while it seems like so much is not going as Abby or Janet had hoped their lives would go, this is ultimately a hopeful novel about identity, progress, community, acceptance, and the power of reading just the right book at just the right time.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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