Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Philippa is returning from holiday spent in Eastern Europe to Deerfield, where she teaches philology at college. It’s not glamorous, but she enjoys her work. What she doesn’t necessarily enjoy is having a roommate for the sea voyage whose chaotic disorganization is so at odds with Philippa’s preference for a neat and tidy cabin. Kay, her roommate, is everything Philippa isn’t: she drinks, she’s out all hours, and she’s unrestrained, brash, emotional, and vibrant. And Philippa finds herself unable to look away. The two develop a friendship over the five days they spend on the ship and, at their final goodbye, those last minutes together, Philippa finds herself wanting something more, some connection that she almost had.

When Elaine, Philippa’s cousin, asks her to come stay with her in Washington D.C because Elaine’s diplomat husband has been kidnapped, Philippa finds herself given a chance to visit Kay again, but Kay is not the same woman she was aboard the ship. She’s brittle, angry, and hurting; Kay had been having an affair with a married man, and his wife — the wife he promised to leave — has discovered it. Philippa, who only wants to soothe and calm Kay, finds herself hating the man who has hurt Kay,\ and realizing that what she feels might be more than simple friendship.

The Latecomer was first published in 1974 by Anyda Marchant under the pseudonym Sarah Aldridge. This is the 50th anniversary edition of one of the first published novels that ends happily for the lesbian couple. They are together, they are in love, and they are happy. However, keep in mind that this was written in the early 1970s, and there are some things here that, to modern eyes, might deserve a very strong side-eye. Like a whole ship gossiping about what an easy lay Kay is because she spends her evenings dancing; how Kay feels like she might have been rude in refusing to sleep with someone because they were dancing together; and how she thinks he was entitled to think so because she was drinking and dancing with him.

However, there are also moments that will, I think read very well to a modern audience:

“I wasn’t concerned about my sex life when I went to college. That wasn’t what I was there for.”

Kay stared at her for a long moment. As she did so her expression changed from good-humored derision to open contempt. “Do you mean to tell me you are a virgin?”

The slight color rose slowly in Philippa’s face. “It’s just as honorable a state as yours.” Her voice was instantly a thin, sharp whip.

Kay’s eyes glowed as she jeered. “[…]I’m simply amazed somebody hasn’t laughed you out of it. It’s ridiculous for a woman of your age in this day and time. Papa and mamma kept you pure?”

[…]

“You’re quite mistaken. Of course, it used to be that a decent woman had no choice but to be a virgin unless she married, if she wanted to remain respectable. But one does have a choice now and I made a different one from yours—and from that of most of my friends.”

Several times during their conversations, Kay lashes out, needling at Philippa, trying to get a rise out of her, trying to make Philippa treat her the way that many other women have treated her in the past … and Philippa doesn’t. She doesn’t rise to the bait, doesn’t try to cause pain or shame. Philippa is rational, even-tempered, and inclined to go along with societal politeness, but with Kay, when she’s like this, Philippa rises to the challenge with calm conversation, with unflinching honesty. She respects Kay, not looking down on her for being more open with her sexuality.

The story reads a little distant, owing both to the style of writing and to the primary POV character, Philippa, being more restrained. The story shows Kay mostly through Philippa’s eyes as a bright, brilliant creature of motion and passion; the few times the book slides into Kay’s perspective, she comes across more helpless, more a leaf caught in the wind, doing its best to enjoy the ride. Kay is impulsive, needing to be the center of attention anywhere and everywhere, and delights in Philippa’s honest, open gaze.

Personally, for me, this book was … okay. I liked Philippa, I thought she was well established as a character; Kay felt like more of an idea than an actual person, someone to be a foil to Philippa rather than her own person. The writing is good, the pacing is a little fast, and the plotting is a touch convenient. The world building isn’t there at all — with no real indication of the time period beyond a mention of ping pong and a lot of smoking. Looked at through a more modern lens, it’s pleasant and I think — even at 50 years old — it holds up well enough.

If you’re interested in classic sapphic fiction, this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking for a historical romance, or something that is more romance forward, I’m afraid you might be let down. Still, I’m glad to have read it and hope it finds its audience. This volume also comes with a brief biography written by Fay Jacobs of the author’s life and her works.