Bellerose, Sally. (2011). The Girls Club. Ann Arbor: Bywater Books.
The Girls Club is both the name of the lesbian bar that is central in the story and a comment on the close-yet-challenging relationships between three sisters. This book is so sharp and well-written, I truly couldn’t put it down and sacrificed a night of good sleep to finish it. The narrative follows Cora Rose, youngest sister in a working class Catholic family, as she grows up, marries, raises a child, and explores her sexuality.
Cora Rose knew from a young age that she was attracted to other girls—she pines over a girlfriend who moved away for literally years, fantasizing about her and missing her. But while the 1970s were a time of free love for many others, Cora Rose’s social milieu is restrictively homophobic, and she denies being a “dyke” to herself, reasoning that homosexuality is a behavior, not an identity.
Thus, she allows sex to happen to her when one of her sisters sets her up with a man, and when she discovers that she’s pregnant, she agrees to marry him. One gets the sense that she’s just drifting through her life, allowing socially acceptable things to happen in order to fit in, but she’s deeply unhappy.
This is not to say that Cora Rose is boring or disempowered. She’s a very complex, interesting character: she has a chronic illness that significantly impacts her life; she has two sisters with big personalities that alternately support and yell at one another; she has hopes and ambitions and makes big choices within a limited set of possibilities. Eventually, of course, she allows herself to explore her sexuality, and various familial and sexual relationships change and shift as she widens her circle and begins to prioritize her own needs and identities.
The Girls Club is a wonderful, engaging, interesting book. Cora Rose’s various identities never feel tokenized, but rather parts of her complex experience. I especially appreciated the nuanced portrayal of chronic illness vis a vis sexuality and work. Sally Bellerose is an accomplished writer; she was awarded a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, and this book won the Bywater Prize for Fiction.