Women by Chloe Caldwell
SF/LD Books, 2014; 144 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Chloe Caldwell's novella, Women, is an intense and intimate story of a relationship doomed from the start. Told through a series of first person almost-fragments, an unnamed young woman begins an affair with an older woman named Finn (who was a fan of the narrator's book) after leaving her rural home with her mother for a basement apartment in a bigger city. In this move to the city, the narrator also hopes to eschew her substance abuse issues and keep working on writing, but her relationship with Finn consumes her life as she's discovering new sides of herself and her sexuality. Like some of the most interesting books, Women is much like a delicious onion in that there are many stories embedded here as we move toward the core: a story of mothers and daughters, how to maintain and forge platonic relationships as well as relationships that fall in the gray such as one the narrator has with a webcam model, and the narrator's quest to understand the LGBT community, and how the narrator navigates drug and alcohol use while maintaining a job, order, a life, and ways coping mechanisms are supportive and crippling.
Throughout Women, Caldwell writes with a fresh perspective on some of the inner-workings of relationships by paying close attention to gestures and body language. Towards the end of the novella, Finn high-fives the narrator during a chance encounter. Afterwards, the narrator notes: “A high-five. I have been reduced to a high-five. [. . .] The high-five makes me think of some afterschool special, where a nerdy girl has sex with the popular football player, sees him at school the next day, and he ignores her. Pretends it never happened. My mother used to say, that after sleeping with someone, you can't go back to holding hands. But can you go back to high-fiving?” (121). Or, earlier in the novella, when the narrator's mom visits on her birthday she notes how, after being with Finn, she feels her mother's affection more “acutely,” noting: “Taking her hand under the table at bars. Noticing whether or not she touches me during the night while we sleep or rubs my back in the morning” (57). This keen eye and attention to detail made the book difficult to put down, and demanded that I read it in one sitting while also calling me to slow down and focus on the dust.
Some of Caldwell's many strengths are in how she shows the intricacies, and dependencies, of relationships through an unflinching, unapologetic, and straightforward narrative. For instance, during a break with Finn, the narrator says that she craves the attention of women, noting: “I jump at the chance to be around females, in public and private settings, with friends and strangers. [. . .] I am a social fucking butterfly, I accept all invitations—and often I do the inviting. One Saturday I go on three dates in a row with women I meet online” (72). The structure of Women was also interesting in itself as the novella generally careened between short (sometimes a small paragraph) chapters and somewhat longer chapters which simulated the emotional thread. And, also, like the narrator's exposed emotional state, Caldwell exposed the guts of the novella as an art-object as well, showing bits from time to time where the narrator discusses the processes and struggles of writing the story which added an extra-layer of vulnerability as well as another layer to the onion. This exposure, in turn, brought me in closer as a witness and a participant. Through a tightly-written and fresh, direct voice, Women fully realizes and further complicates the notions of love and how we find meaning in our relationships.