Rating: 3.75 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Bernie and Leah are contemporary artists trying to find ways to make their marks on the world, but in very different media. Bernie is a photographer, trained in large format photos by a master of this lost art, her former professor, Daniel Dunn. She has a good eye and has made some images that got good reviews, but she hasn’t made enough to support herself with her art. Instead, Bernie’s working at a coffee shop and a library just to make ends meet. She’s recently been accepted to live in a big house in Philadelphia, sharing with four roommates, including Leah. Leah is a journalist, and also a grad student. They’re non-binary, and have a relationship with another housemate, Alex. That said, there’s some frisson of attraction between Bernie and Leah nearly from the start and they intrigue one another.

Bernie has recently been notified that Professor Dunn has bequeathed his estate to her. They haven’t spoken in some time, and he became an alcoholic recluse following accusations of impropriety with other female students. Bernie has mixed feelings about the inheritance, needing the money, but repulsed by gaining anything from Dunn’s legacy. Leah has a grant to write about people and places that are far more interesting than the vignettes they submit for a small paper. Leah thinks the trip to collect what Bernie can from the inheritance might provide inspiration for both of them to get back to their artistic endeavors.

Over the course of a few weeks, they tour the highways and byways of Pennsylvania, pausing often to set up the camera for Bernie to document whatever catches her fancy. Leah thinks that their writing could supplement the clarity that Bernie’s images evoke. Changing Pennsylvania, their collaborative work, is meant to be a visual and verbal mobile art installation that will serve humanity as it educates about art. This brainchild is mostly Leah’s, but Bernie is definitely on board. They develop a strong connection to one another, one that Leah really wants and one that Bernie’s afraid to trust. She’s sure that returning to the house will mean a return of Alex to Leah’s bed.

This was an interesting take on twisting real life queer pioneers into a contemporary fiction novel. It doesn’t actually behave like a romance, though there are romantic elements, and a lifelong love that develops between Bernie and Leah. Bernie is modeled after acclaimed photographer and documentarian, Berenice Abbott, while Leah is modeled after Elizabeth McCausland, a famous art critic who was Berenice’s life and art partner in the early to mid-20th century. The story here isn’t meant to be biographical, but there are elements that somewhat parallel the kind of “housemates” life that Berenice and Elizabeth may have experienced in the 1930s when they met, as they needed to create space for their love in a way that wouldn’t ruffle other’s feathers. There’s also a character, Ann, telling part of the story, narrating as if watching Bernie and Leah, finding their growing love in the open, in contemporary times, to be a balm over her own tainted memories of the “housemate” she wasn’t allowed to publicly claim, despite their years of “quiet” or clandestine love. Ann felt modeled after an older Berenice, to some degree.

I liked the story. It has a lot of social justice themes and some bold takes on how queer persons with privilege should use it to the betterment of all their community. Leah and Bernie certainly echo their real-life counterparts, because those women were committed to striving for equality for all. The format of the book was a bit off-putting to me, with no quotes and the constant changing of POV. Pacing and transitions were a little odd, with all the head-hopping and flashback/flashforward moments. I sometimes struggled to determine if the characters were speaking to each other, or just considering what they might say if the event they pulled together the courage. This was especially true for Bernie’s parts because she really thinks a lot about what she’s going to say before she opens her mouth.

I think fans of speculative fiction, or those who enjoy twists on the historical archive of queer pioneers, would enjoy this story.