All posts by THEFEMINISTSPECTATOR

Losses and Returns

             Two things happened this week that made me think about returning to the cultural criticism I wrote for ten years in this blog:  Terrence McNally died of the coronavirus at 81, and Julia Miles died of a long illness at 90.  These two titans of the American theatre represent pioneering work by a theatre producer determined to proliferate women’s voices on stage (Miles) and by a playwright who brought white gay men into more fulsome live representation, before and during another global health crisis (of course, HIV/AIDS).

             Miles and McNally’s recent deaths let me take the long view on my own career as a feminist theatre critic.  As an upstart scholar in the early 80s, I derided Miles’ vision for the Women’s Project Theatre—which she founded as a platform for women playwrights—as collaborationist and liberal, just another way to get privileged women through the door of existing systems of power.  My scorched-earth criticism bespoke, at the time, my own commitment to what I saw as more radical modes of production and representation, in which American theatre itself, as we knew it then, would be transformed. In my 20s and 30s, I’d yet to learn “yes/and”; I could only imagine either/or. Now, in my 60s—and especially now, as live art and culture have been put on indefinite hold by Covid-19—I see the urgency of promoting, advocating for, and insisting on all sorts of forms and contents in all sorts of venues and forums.

             On Facebook today, I read Holly Hughes’ lovely elegy to McNally, who she said was one of the few mainstream gay playwrights who was kind and supportive during the years in which she was publicly vilified as one of the NEA Four.  Hughes’ work couldn’t be more different from McNally’s; her words always evoked the dark underbelly of being queer and marginalized in America, while his often tried to make gayness familiar, normal.  But Holly wrote of McNally’s generosity and kindness, the critical acumen he shared when he came to see her perform.

             These binaries—downtown/uptown, radical/liberal, high/low, experimental/mainstream—were always more porous than I was willing to admit, early in my own career.  We so need the bigger tent of engagement, across identities, politics, forms, styles, cultural capitals, to support the continuing necessity that we chip away at representational hegemony. The work isn’t done yet; far from it.  I’m grateful and indebted to Miles and McNally both; holding their memories and their work in the light and in my heart.

I’ve been preoccupied working as a dean at Princeton for the last five years, overseeing the undergraduate academic experience. But the Covid-19 pandemic, perversely, might provide some time for reflection on the ever-increasing amount of watching and reading now available at home. It’s nice to contemplate sharing thoughts about culture and representation once again, while hoping we all survive . . .

Books I Read in 2017

Years ago, I learned the trick of keeping a list of what I’ve read from my friend, Susan Messina.  Although this year wasn’t a banner year in terms of quantity, I liked much of what I read very much.  So I thought I’d share these 30-odd titles here.  Some were published this year, some I just got to read in 2017.  Perhaps I’ll do the same for theatre, film, and television I saw/watched in 2017.  Happy New Year . . .

Books Read (Fiction)

  1. The Lewis Man (Peter May), January. Not quite as good as the first outing I read, as it shifts back and forth in time and perspective.  But I’m learning a lot about Scottish society in the meantime, and he evokes the austerity of the outer islands beautifully.
  2. The Dry (Jane Harper), February. Not gorgeous prose but a good story about two overlapping murders in the Australian outback, west of Melbourne.  Returning adult to the site of a town in which he was accused of murdering his old friend.  Comes back when another old friend appears to have murdered his wife and kid.  Story unravels, characters sympathetic, atmosphere of drought and heat in a dying rural town.
  3. Before the Frost (Henning Mankell), March. Linda Wallender story, good plot about a man who survived Jamestown and then returns to the Swedish family he left behind to wreak havoc on them and their town.  Interesting characters, too, but the translation seemed very stiff.  No doubt better in the original.
  4. The Hate U Give (Angela Thomas, March). YA novel about an African-American girl who lives in the projects but goes to school at a wealthy, mostly white private school.  Nicely told story about racial bias and how someone can cross two-worlds (pros and cons).  Her best touch is to change the tone and style of the protagonist’s interior monologue when she’s in different environments, so that her voice has hip-hop intonations in the “neighborhood” and more “white” constructions when she’s at school.  A good, important story.
  5. Exit West (Mohsin Hamid, March). Just a remarkable, post-apocalyptic story about migration and the ways in which we’re always, as he says, migrating all the time, even if that migration is just through  He has a wonderfully tautological way with words that’s incredibly knowing and somehow emotionally reassuring, even as he describes the upheaval of violence and intense change.  He also humanizes the experience of migration in ways utterly necessary now, in an historical moment in which we’re more prone, thanks to Trump, to demonize one another.  His writing is intensely human and humane, and filled with a kind of melancholy that feels authentic and full of truth.  In other words, the endings aren’t necessary happy, even though he’s writing a global love story (that’s about so much more than that) but they are true and real to the frailty of human emotion.  I love that he doesn’t name the city from which Saeed and Nadia flee, even though you know it’s in the Middle East (he’s from Pakistan, where he still lives much of the time).  I love that new cities are built from the rubble of the old, and that the old are familiar:  London, California, places remade by the arrival of people who come through magic doors, portals that allow migration to become the norm rather than the exception.
  6. Waking Lions (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, April). Translated from Hebrew, an Israeli debut novel about a surgeon exiled to a small hospital in Beersheba because he’s accused his star mentor of corruption.  Feeling resentful and sorry for himself, he goes out driving in the desert one night and kills an Eritrean immigrant.  The man’s wife tracks the doctor down and blackmails him into maintaining an illegal clinic for other African immigrants.  It’s a beautifully written story, full of ethical and moral quagmires, relationship traumas, and choices between styles of life.  The stakes she compares—between the privileged doctor and the very smart Eritrean woman, Sikrit, who’s doing everything she can to survive—is astute and compelling.
  7. The Book of Joan (Lidia Yuknavitch, June). Remarkable dystopian novel, a rewriting of the Joan of Arc story, utterly feminist.  She imagines a world in which the rich have transported themselves to space, where they live by sucking the resources out of an Earth that’s been reduced nearly to dust.  But resistance continues there, where Joan lives in underground caves, and a cadre of young boys whose bodies haven’t been plumbed for resources make their way toward the light.  Resistance continues on the space station, too, as Christine and her gay friend Trinculo conspire against the powers-that-be, led by Jean de Men, a horrible, skin-grafted white blob of life who revels despicably in his power and privilege.  A gender-neutral character named Nyx assists the revolutionaries by moving back and forth between Earth and CIEL, the space station.  Retelling the plot, however, can’t evoke the intelligence and sometimes lyricism of the writing, which manages to evoke the best of the present as though it’s already the past.  Christine, for instance, remembers seeing a film on Earth (which sounds like Zhivago, though it’s not named): “I cried for days after seeing the film.  The epic, romantic story, and even its form, got inside me.  The micro element of the personal and the macro sweep of the historical seemed to be composed in the film in a way I’d never imagined, woven together like words and music, like melody and harmony.  To be human, the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity:  to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible—to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into.  Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train.  It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos” (82).  Lovely.
  8. Drama (Raina Telgemeier, graphic YA novel, July). Lovely, sweet story about a girl who works the stage crew for her middle-school musical.  Manages to get in all sorts of poignant insights about gender fluidity and sexuality, while also empowering the girl, being smart about race, and very clear about the importance of theatre for building subjectivity and community.  Published by Scholastic, of all things.  How the world has changed.
  9. Since We Fell (Dennis Lehane, July). Lehane is one of the few male mystery writers I read, because he’s literary and smart.  This one is no exception, although as a number of reviews noted, it’s almost two books in one.  The first is about a woman trying to find her father, since her recently deceased, controlling mother never shared his name with her.  In the process, she meets a private investigator who keeps reappearing in her life, finally becomes her husband, and winds up scamming her profoundly.  The plot points get more outrageous as the conclusion races forward, and I’m not quite sure I buy it, but Lehane’s taut and propulsive writing makes that matter very little.  And his characters are well drawn, even the woman whose life centers the story.
  10. Do Not Become Alarmed (Maile Meloy, July). Excellent novel with a page-turning plot, about two American families who go on a cruise somewhere in Latin America and get tragically separated from their children.  With shifting narrative voices (including the missing children), Meloy manages to convey multiple perspectives on the local economy and infrastructure, while painting a devastating portrait of American privilege, imperialism, and self-satisfaction.  The racial politics aren’t always perfect, but her characters are rendered provocatively and aren’t always sympathetic.  She mixes issues of American privilege with border-crossings and drug dealings in ways that draw a skein of implications and points to mutual corruption.  Taut, vivid writing.
  11. A Horse Walks into a Bar (David Grossman, August). Popular and important Israeli novelist; this book recently won a major international award (which I’m now forgetting).  Takes place in a bar, where a stand-up “comedian” is monologuing about his life and the state of Israel, in front of a hostile crowd, which includes two people he knows:  one an odd woman with whom he grew up, and the other, the narrator, who also knew the protagonist and comes to feel implicated in the stories he tells.  The sense of foreboding here is strong; when it doesn’t pay off at the end, you feel a bit cheated.  But the painful story is piercing, in its way, and the character of the “comic” remains fully in mind.
  12. The Secret Chord (Geraldine Brooks, August). Historical fiction about King David, Saul, and Solomon, in Judea.  Not my genre, but it did flesh out the biblical history before my summer’s trip to Israel.
  13. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, September). Very smart, long monologue about a Princeton grad who becomes a captain of industry, until September 11th changes his perspective on America and prompts him to return to his native Pakistan.  As he speaks to an unnamed interlocutor in Lahore, the sense of foreboding and antagonism become stronger and more immediate, until the end, when some sort of cataclysm is hinted at but not explicitly delivered.  Smart, vital read.
  14. New People (Danzy Senna, November). I loved her Caucasia, which is quite old at this point.  Senna herself is mixed race (white/black) and this one also concerns a mixed-race couple, who are the “new people” in terms of being cool and Brooklyn-based, and chic by virtue of how their lives rewrite a racial narrative.  But the central character is an unpleasant and unsympathetic woman who detests her fiancé (their too-perfect relationship makes them the “new people” of the title) and falls in love instead with a fully black poet (who remains something of a cipher throughout the book, since he’s really just a projection of her ambivalence and desire).  The plot contrivances here don’t quite work either, but Senna’s satire (vicious) of contemporary race politics, and of a certain slice of NY/Brooklyn cognoscenti, is rather delicious.  It’s a spare book, with essentially one idea, but it was a worthwhile read.
  15. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng, November). I loved her Everything I Never Told You, which is about the suicide of a young girl, told in flashbacks and cross-cuts.  This novel, too, telescopes and extends time, beginning while the prim and proper mother of a Shaker Heights family considers the burning ruin of her house, then flashing back to the story that brought her family to its scorched-earth moment.  Ng creates interesting, complicated characters old and young, although in this one, the basic conflicts are charted a bit too coarsely.  The white Shaker Heights families are villainous, while the outsiders—by economic class or race—are more sympathetic in ways that feel contrived.  But the central characters are drawn with care and affection that makes them interesting and sympathetic—Pearl and her mother, Mia, who have a mysterious past that unfolds over the course of the story.  The central question is what makes a mother . . . to her credit, Ng doesn’t answer, but raises all the right questions for consideration.
  16. Turtles All the Way Down (John Green, YA, December). I’m a fan of his YA fiction, and this one is his most powerful yet.  Apparently autobiographical, the novel details the mental spirals of a young woman who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder that rules her life.  A very difficult read because it captures so well the implacable voices that lead this woman, against everything rational, to behave in self-destructive ways.  Although the ending is hopeful, it doesn’t skirt the sadness and devastation of this disease.
  17. Disobedience (Naomi Alderman, December). A first-novel by a woman who went on to write The Power, which was listed on many of the best books of 2017 lists.  This one—about to be made into a film—concerns two women whose lives intertwined in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of London, where one was the rebellious rabbi’s daughter and the other her smitten, loyal girlfriend.  They begin a covert sexual relationship, before the rabbi’s daughter escapes to secular life in the States, and the other stays behind to marry their mutual friend, another Orthodox but yet irreverent Jewish scholar.  The writing and plotting is a bit blunt, but Alderman fills the book with lovely spiritual observations and Talmudic exegeses that help illuminate the characters’ thoughts, and her wry humor and sharp observations bring to life the contradictions of a closed, rigidly constrained community.  I’m looking forward to reading The Power.
  18. Autumn (Ali Smith, December). Beautiful rendering of the odd but loyal relationship between an aging man and a very young woman, whose lives intertwine for 50-odd years.  The non-linear narrative tells the story in a languorous way, but the prose is strong and vivid, full of allegory and metaphor (leaves, trees, regeneration, growth).  Both the old man and the young woman are compelling, unusual characters, and Smith doesn’t concern herself with filling in the details of what happens in their lives so much as charting what they feel about their lives, and the ties of intellect, imagination, and emotion that tie them together.  The young woman’s mother, too, becomes a surprisingly rich character, with her own arc from bitter and querulous to an anti-Brexit, pro-immigrant activist who falls in love with another woman.  The book always surprised me in pleasurable ways.  And moved me deeply.
  19. The Bird Artist (Howard Norman, 1995, December). Another in my growing list of novels about Newfoundland, this one is as bleak and emotionally rigorous as they all seem to be, recalling the austerity of the landscape and the lives of people whose livelihoods are bound to the sea and an unforgiving geography.  The conflict between complex desire and the fundamentalisms of religion abound here, as do those between propriety and freedom.  Beautifully told.
  20. The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern, 2012, December). I had this on my iPad and rediscovered it on a long international flight.  A phantasmagoria about a circus created by powerful magicians as a staging ground for a death-to-the-vanquished challenge between two of their proteges.  Morgenstern best describes the enchantment of the circus’ visitors, whose intense pleasure and devotion to Le Cirque des Reves makes them into “reveurs,” whose scarlet scarves set them off from the elegant black and white scenography of the circus tents and grounds.  The turns of plot are surprising and compelling, the characters courtly (this takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but passionate.  I was charmed and moved by the story’s intelligence and imagination, and its ultimate commitment to life and hope.

Books Read (Non-Fiction)

  1. A Body Undone:  Living on After Great Pain (Christina Crosby, June). Memoir of a tragic accident, in which Crosby fell from her bicycle and shattered her face and spinal cord.  She’s now quadriplegic, has been for nearly seventeen years.  The book is a combination of theoretical and personal musing, with excursions into stories (as memoir does) about her family in ways that seem peripheral to the main argument, which is about disability and pain.  Pitched for a more public audience, but still theory-based, which sometimes means the voice and approach is awkward.
  2. Citizen:  An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine, July). Smart and eloquent plaint about invisibility, recognition, the pain of the quotidian, and the suffering wrought by history around racial violence.
  3. The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland (Jim Defede, July).  A crisp journalistic account of what happened when 38 planes were detoured to Gander after US airspace was closed on 9/11.  The generosity and kindness of the townspeople, who rallied with extraordinary goodwill and a range of supplies; the way people from the planes (the “plane people,” in local parlance) bonded; the fear and anxiety of being away from home during a tragedy and not knowing what was happening.  The basis for the musical Come from Away.  Touching and informative and hopeful.
  4. My Promised Land:  The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel (Ari Shavit, July). Comprehensive and personal, a sweeping look at the contradictory, complicated politics and policies of the state of Israel since its inception and before.  Chock-full of information and ideas and provocative thinking.
  5. Understanding the Digital World (Brian Kernighan, August). Written for the lay-person, but still a bit complicated.  Still, helped me understand some of what goes on under the hood of my electronics.
  6. What is Populism, Jan-Werner Mueller, Princeton Pre-Read (August). A small but useful outline of what populism means and how it’s roiling contemporary politics.  Very helpful in the age of Trump.  I learned a lot about the one-way moral convictions of populist groups, and their determination that you’re either for or against them.  I hope the first-years learned things from it.
  7. Dying: A Memoir (Cory Taylor, September).  Woman who died of melanoma-related cancer at 61.  Eloquent, lovely, brief, mediation on what it means to die, and young.  Not as stirring as it might have been, but piercing in moments.

Hamilton

Guest Blog by Stacy Wolf (FS2)

Yes, I loved Hamilton.  From the moments the lights come up, it’s electric, exhilarating, pulsing, infectious.  It’s fast, kinetic, beautifully designed, superbly performed.  The performance grabs you and holds you for 2½ hours.  I got to see it first at the Public last year (as it turns out, the same performance that the Clintons attended, which provided layers of irony and heightened awareness for the entire audience, as we watched a former and possibly future President watch actors playing past presidents and politicians).

I saw it again Broadway in November with my students and some colleagues among a packed house of thrilled young people.  It’s amazing to see so many young people of color in a Broadway theatre—that fact alone is enough to warrant this musical’s blockbuster success.  Even though our seats were near the back of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, we could see perfectly and had a great view of the powerful lighting design and fluid set changes.  Lesson to all:  if you can get tickets, you can sit in the very back and still love this show.  (The audience demographics have shifted, it seems, because it’s the hottest and most expensive ticket in town.  During a recent talk at Princeton, Claudia Rankine observed that when she saw the show, most of the audience was white and older.)

So many words have been spilled on this musical, and such valuable commentary has been published—most recently James McMaster’s astute “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it Is” on HowlRound—in addition to the flood of crucial fans’ cheers for the show.  I’m adding my thoughts to the mix to expand the discussion and to demonstrate how we can love musicals that also trouble us.  Last month at BroadwayCon (another incredible and inspirational theatre event), I moderated a lively panel titled “Is Your Fave Problematic?”  The audience was eager to talk about shows that they love but that represent women or people of color in unflattering or stereotypical ways.  A takeaway of that session was that we have to keep talking and embrace ambivalence and contradiction in our spectatorship and fandom.  This piece is meant to gesture in that direction.

So:  what about Hamilton’s women?

Let me say first that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s idea to transform Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton was nothing short of brilliant.  By casting the U.S.’s founding fathers as hip-hop singing men of color, the show radically revises our perspective on the very meaning of this country’s origins.  It’s not surprising that New York City public high school students are attending the show to learn U.S. history and that history teachers across the U.S are using the musical’s cast album as a textbook of sorts.

In addition to the eponymous character currently played with infinite charisma by the author (though he’ll soon be replaced by Javier Muñoz , his current understudy who performs each Sunday), Hamilton’s fellow-travelers are precisely drawn and charmingly embodied by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Hamilton’s archenemy and eventual killer, Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as a Frenchified Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Groff as 1970s crooner King George (a role created by and wearing the ghost of Brian d’Arcy James), and Christopher Jackson as a reasonable and strict George Washington.

Within the hip hop rhythms, Miranda assigns each character a catchy lyric or musical motif so that when each returns, the audience immediately understands who he is and how he fits into the story.  For example, King George’s thrice reprised melody in “What Comes Next?,” “You’ll Be Back,” and “I Know Him” brings down the house with its lilting, bubble gum pop tune, its series of “da da da da da,” and its irresistibly droll lyrics, like “Cuz when push comes to shove, / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love” and his wide-eyed surprise that George Washington will not rule the USA forever.

Repeated (nay, obsessive) listenings to the cast album has heightened my appreciation for the sharp, precise, evocative, always super-intelligent, and piercingly funny lyrics and the musical themes that give the piece an ensured unity.  This cast album, which combines contemporary music and linguistic vernacular with musical theatre’s age-old conventions to tell what might be imagined as a staid history lesson, gives back in a big way.  I witnessed some cast members’ impressive freestyling at BroadwayCon on January 22 (again, to a packed, screaming, and ecstatic audience), but this show draws as much on musical theatre’s key elements of catchy phrasing, repeated choruses, and meaningful lyrics as it does on hip hop.

The strength of the cast album and its wildly successful reception harkens back to a mid-20th century era when fans across the U.S who would be unlikely ever to experience a musical on Broadway could nonetheless participate in this form of popular culture by purchasing and listening to the cast album, an experience familiar to millions of baby boomers.  I’ve heard more than a few of my students singing songs from Hamilton, though they haven’t (yet) seen the show.  Though the producers have already set a September 27, 2016 opening date for a Chicago production and are looking towards productions in London’s West End and in other U.S. cities, this musically-varied, melodically-catchy, harmonically-rich, and lyrically sharp cast album is unbelievably satisfying as a stand-alone experience.

At this point, it’s hard to separate the power of the production itself from the audience’s adoring reception.  At the performance I attended, lengthy applause followed Miranda’s cannily understated entrance after a long description of his character at the beginning of the show.  Burr narrates, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / forgotten / spot in the Caribbean by providence, / impoverished, in squalor, / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” which leads to his account of the elders’ advice to the youth, “’Get your education, don’t forget from whence / you came, and / the world’s gonna know your name.  What’s your name, man?’” and he answers quietly, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the audience goes crazy.

Another huge round of appreciative shouts followed Hamilton and Lafayette’s line late in Act 1:  “Immigrants: / We get the job done” before the victorious Battle of Yorktown.  Listening to this response reminded me of how I felt when I saw In the Heights numerous times (which was created by the same team of Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator and musical director Alex Lacamoire):  this is the very transformation of Broadway.  Like In the Heights, Hamilton retains an awareness that it’s telling a story—and a new one at that—and using seductive aliveness of theatre.

On a remarkably simple and beautiful wood-evoking set of levels and stairs (designed by David Korins), the ensemble, which is on stage for most of the show, either on the floor or on the levels and catwalks above, plays a range of characters.  Costumed in a muted palette with bright accents, they’re observers and participants, and they comment on the action in big, richly harmonized sound.  Their choreography, sometimes in unison but more typically in individualized gestures and patterns, creates a sense of movement, of time passing, of specific settings and events.

Minimal set pieces—a table, a stool, a chair—indicate location, but place and the atmosphere are created by Howell Binkley’s lighting design.  The lights define space, frequently casting shadows on the floor to indicate the size of a room and the time of day with gobos making pictures that tell the audience where we are.   The lights also direct our view in a mass of moving bodies, and the cues are fast and furious and frequently coordinate with the music’s beat for emphasis.

But.

Experiencing Hamilton—the show, the cast album, and the near hysterical adoration that’s accompanied its arrival to the musical theatre scene—calls up the ambivalence so familiar to the feminist spectator-critic.  It also inspires that “am I crazy?” and “here I go:  the killjoy” feeling.  Of course, Hamilton can’t do everything that every musical theatre fan and theatre-goer wants:  no show can.  But still, I was enormously disappointed in the role of women play in Hamilton.

There, I said it.

The musical features three women:  the two eldest Schuyler sisters (the youngest sister, Peggy, only appears in the opening number when the sisters are introduced (“and Peggy!” she chimes in) and in a few other group songs) and Maria, the seductress.  The sisters are introduced in a catchy song with tight harmony reminiscent of the Pointer Sisters.  Though the ensemble describes them as desirable because their father is rich, once they sing for themselves, they’re a force, delighted to be living in New York City:  “Look around, look around at how / Lucky we are to be alive right now! / History is happening in Manhattan and we / just happen to be in the greatest city in the / world!”

Angelica, played by the sensational Renée Elise Goldsberry, who won both the Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Awards for her performance, is the eldest and is smart, as she sings, “I’m lookin’ for a / mind at work!”  Intellectual and ambitious, she sings, “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas / Paine. / So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane. / You want a revolution? I want a revelation / So listen to my declaration.”  She’s also self-aware: “’We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal.’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, / I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the / sequel!”  Here the musical lets the audience know that it knows what it’s doing with gender.  This show is too smart not to know.  In an interview with Rebecca Mead, Miranda said that Angelica is the smartest character in the show.

Angelica is not only intelligent, she’s also savvy.  As Michael Schulman writes in The New Yorker, “Angelica and Alexander are equals in wit, but not in status, and she is well aware of her station and its demands.”  Schulman quotes the lyrics: “I’m a girl in a world in which / My only job is to marry rich. / My father has no sons so I’m the one / Who has to social-climb for one.”  Although she is immediately attracted to Alexander, so is her sister, and Angelica knows that she needs to marry someone wealthy, which she eventually does.  Still, she remains intellectually and emotionally attached to Alexander, since both of them “will never be satisfied.”

Angelica becomes Hamilton’s soulmate and though her first song suggests she’ll be an active participant in the country’s formation, she does nothing but pine for Alexander after arranging the match between him and her beautiful and vacuous sister, Eliza.  At one point, she urges him to negotiate with Jefferson, again hinting at her backstage power to influence politics.

In spite of Goldsberry’s extraordinary performance, Angelica simply doesn’t have much to do in the musical.  In the end, she plays the role of the muse, the supportive sister, the intellectual equal of Hamilton who plays no overt role in the country’s formation.  In other words, she is introduced as a remarkable, powerful and potentially ground-breaking character but ultimately occupies a familiar gender stereotype.

Eliza, played by the equally fantastic Phillipa Soo, for her part, is seemingly not very bright:  in their first number, when they’re out in the city and her sister revels the political foment of the time, Eliza sings, “Angelica, remind me what we’re looking for . . .”  When she meets Alexander, she’s “helpless” with desire, “Down for the count, / And I’m drownin’ /  in ‘em.”

Nonetheless, she is beautiful and a loving wife who raises their son to speak French and play the piano.  She also pesters Hamilton about paying attention to his son; she harangues him to leave work to “take the summer off and go upstate” with the family.  For her, what they have “would be enough” (her musical theme)—the exact opposite of Alexander and Angelica’s temperaments.  Even when Angelica returns from London to spend the summer with her family, and Eliza reminds him that John Adams spends time with his family, Hamilton demurs and quips, “John Adams doesn’t / have a real job anyway.”

Later in Act 2, Eliza becomes the sympathetic, long-suffering wife when she finds out about Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds that summer.  She is humiliated by the announcement of his extended tryst, recounting that she “thought you were mine” even though Angelica once told her, “Be careful with that one, Love. / He will do what it takes to survive.”

After their son’s death in a duel (because Alexander nobly advises the boy not to kill his opponent but instead shoot at the sky—which he himself does in the fatal duel with Burr), Eliza forgives Alexander (as the Company sings beautifully, “Forgiveness.  Can you imagine?” and they move uptown.  There she lives peacefully, while he, ever restless, walks the city until he supports Jefferson’s bid for president.  This is the last straw for his lifetime enemy Burr, who challenges him to the duel that ends Hamilton’s life.  For most of the musical, then, Eliza represents a stereotypical loyal wife.

Maria Reynolds (the excellent Jasmine Cephas Jones, who also plays the small role of Peggy Schuyler), the other woman in the musical and in his life, seduces Hamilton in a gorgeous, bluesy number.  Her sole purpose in the show is to get Hamilton into her bed through a performance of her helplessness.  (Schulman observes that she “isn’t much more than an archetypal femme fatale—sort of a sultry Rihanna type.”)  Like Angelica and Eliza, Maria only exists and functions in the musical in relation to him.

Unfortunately (for Hamilton and for the musical’s gender politics), it’s this matrimonial betrayal that brings Hamilton down.  Even though all of the other men—Jefferson, Lafayette, Mulligan, and of course, Burr—hate him personally and politically, they can’t get rid of him until they follow the money trail of his affair.

Hamilton’s dedication to his professional persona and his charming innocence blind him to the implications of the relationship.  He even documents the whole encounter, so he thinks, to save his political reputation.  Though the musical focuses on this misstep and his naiveté in believing that confessing the affair keeps him politically clean, this major plot device—Hamilton’s destruction —is caused by a woman.  Again, this narrative is far too culturally familiar.

The musical offers these power dynamics—both diegetically and performatively—in a nuanced and complex way.  Because the show is told from Hamilton’s point of view, even though the other men hate him, the musical sides with him.  He’s charming and likeable and politically brave.  Though he talks too much and “writes like he’s running out of time,” he’s passionate and opinionated and fully committed to the creation of this new country.  From a historical distance, then, he seems perfectly reasonable.  He’s ambitious and a workaholic but those traits seem appropriate and admirable given the high stakes of the moment.  He’s more sympathetic than the other men, partly because he has more stage time and he’s a fully developed character.

Hamilton is intellectually sharp and politically determined, able to withstand every pressure except the sexual appeal of a woman.  His downfall is his weakness for a woman’s seductive power, the weakness of sexual desire, which the musical portrays as understandable:  he’s alone in the city; he’s exhausted; he knows he should “say no to this.”  We feel bad that he couldn’t resist her.  The music is irresistible to the audience, as we witness her pressing him, professing her desire and her need, her helplessness.  As The New Yorker’s Schulman writes, “While the show doesn’t let Hamilton off the hook, he comes across more as a dupe than as an adulterer.”  But then, the show doesn’t even give Maria the power of a villain, as she is ultimately the pawn in her husband’s blackmail scheme.

In the end, then, the three women in the musical occupy the most conventional and stereotypical roles—muse, wife, whore—which is all the more troubling since Hamilton goes such a long way to dismantle stereotypes of race and masculinity.  In his review in The New Yorker, Hilton Als called the musical a “bromance” and found the female characters to be “plot point in silk.”  (I agree with this point but disagree that In the Heights has the same problem.  Usnavi is that musical’s host and narrator but Nina’s story is well-developed and central to the show.)  To be sure, the show is well aware of its gender problems, which it tries to resolve historiographically.  When Hamilton’s affair is uncovered, Eliza sings, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative. / Let future historians wonder / How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart,” wresting her point of view into her own hands.

At the end of the show, Eliza decides to “put myself back in the narrative” and offers an account of her life, which continued for 50 years after Hamilton’s death.  She becomes an activist, “speak[ing] out against slavery” and founding “the first private orphanage in New York City.”  She and Angelica gather Hamilton’s letters, and “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing,” in order to write his story, to write this story.

The supremely intelligent and self-reflexive musical ends with a commentary on the very writing of history, underlining the importance of the author.  “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” repeats the Company.  In the end, Hamilton reveals, all of this exists because of Eliza (and Angelica), her efforts, and her own ability to write and to tell his life’s narrative.  She is the author.

The musical’s last number is quiet and choir-like, crammed with information that surprises an audience accustomed for the past 2½ hours to seeing the women on the sidelines.  On the one hand, it’s a profound gesture of respect towards Eliza. But theatrically, it’s too little too late.  After a musical packed with non-stop movement, dramatic intensity, strong melodies, and galvanizing rhythms, it’s narrowly focused and understated.  Though appropriate for the show’s conclusion, it can’t rescue Eliza or women in the musical from their inconsequential role.

This conclusion is not unlike the set pieces at the end of Shakespeare’s plays, like Puck’s “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Rosalind’s assertion that “good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues” in As You Like It.  It asks the audience to reflect back on what’s preceded it.  We can think about the story and its significance differently but it doesn’t change how we’ve felt during the past few hours in the theatre.

Miranda has stated that he welcomes cross-gender casting when the rights are released for amateur productions, especially high school shows when “no one’s voice is set.”  He said, “I’m totally open to women playing founding fathers once this goes into the world. I can’t wait to see kick-ass women Jeffersons and kickass women Hamiltons once this gets to schools.”  A gone-viral YouTube clip of #Ham4Ham 1/3/16 with The Ladies of Hamilton features the women actors impersonating the male characters outside the theatre.  I think girls in these roles would be sensational and would foreground how little the female characters get to do and how they function in the musical.  Like Angelica Schuyler, I’m excited about the sequel.

In the end, for FS2, the issue ultimately isn’t what Hamilton does or doesn’t do.  As I said, no musical can do everything and what this show has achieved aesthetically, politically, and demographically is extraordinary and deserves loud praise.  I LOVE HAMILTON.  But I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been more critical discussion of the role of women in the show.

Finally, it’s fascinating that three of the bravest, smartest, and most entertaining (I mean that in a good way) musicals of the year are single sex-focused:  Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Color Purple.  Might the presumptive heterosexual narrative of musical theatre have run its course?

 

Selected additional sources websites consulted:

Ben Brantley, “The Same Founding Father’s Newer Vibe,” New York Times, December 1, 2015, p.C3.

Suzie Evans, “The Room Where It Happens” (Interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda), American Theatre, September 15, 2016, pp.24-31+.

Joanne Kaufman, “A Night Out With Ren Renée Elise Goldsberry of ‘Hamilton,’” New York Times, October 9, 2015.

Claire Lampen, “’Hamilton’ Musical Is Doing a National Tour—Here’s What We Know about Cities and Tickets, Arts.Mic, December 9, 2015.

Ellen Malpert-Greaux, “Birth of a Nation:  Colonial Lighting,” Live Design, October 6, 2015.

Charles McNulty, “Critic’s Notebook:  ‘Hamilton’s’ revolutionary power is in its hip-hop musical numbers,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2015.

Theater People Podcast with Renée Elise Goldsberry (Episode 56), January 4, 2016.

Sierra Tishgart, “Brian d’Arcy James, Jonathan Groff, and Andrew Rannells on Playing Hamilton Fan Favorite King George II,” Vulture, January 14, 2016.

Anthony Tommasini and Jon Caramanica, “Exploring ‘Hamilton’ and Hip-Hop Steeped in Heritage, New York Times, August 27, 2015.

Carol

Carol, poster

Todd Haynes’ devastating Carol offers a portrait of impossible desire that’s revealed through glances, meaning-laden gestures, and little bits of dialogue, creating a subtext of sexual innuendo and need that’s brilliantly carried by Cate Blanchett, as Carol, and Rooney Mara, as Therese, the young shop girl she seduces.

The story—adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel (written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), The Price of Salt—is set in mid-50s America, but it resonates across queer history, reminding spectators who celebrate an era of same-sex marriage and family-making that we’re really not that far from a time when the consequences of our desire were dire, if no less necessary.  (For terrific discussions of Highsmith and the history of the novel, see Frank Rich’s “Loving Carol” in New York Magazine and Margaret Talbot’s “Forbidden Love” in The New Yorker.)

Carol is a film about falling in love, but as Patricia White points out in her very smart analysis of the film’s queerness (“A Lesbian ‘Carol’ for Christmas”), in their end-of-the-year awards-race rhetoric, too many critics have acclaimed Carol as a universal romance, when in fact, the film is deeply queer in its filmic and narrative choices.  Carol evokes two women falling in love at a moment that required them to encode their desire in subterfuge and indirection.  White points out that Haynes’ film quotes all the tropes of Hays Code-era films in which lesbianism could only be referenced obliquely.  His achievement here is to embed these old referents in a new film that directly addresses lesbian desire.   Blanchett and Mara capture the painful pleasure of feelings to which it’s impossible to put words, a desire you can barely even look at even while its charge and depth rock your world.

Therese (Mara) and Carol (Blanchett) in their first encounter
Therese (Mara) and Carol (Blanchett) in their first encounter

Haynes lets the camera linger on how Carol and Therese look at one another.  Their scenes are sometimes wordless, but the two actors communicate with their bodies and faces in ways that speak volumes.  Haynes frames scenes through doors and windows, looking at Carol and Therese askance as though he (and the spectator) can only see them through the dominant culture’s perspective, skewed, awry, and remote until they’re fully together.  His camera tracks with the narrative, gradually moving closer to them, watching them watch one another, and then putting them fully together in two-shots as they become more physically intimate.

Framing characters through taxi windows, among others, always looking through windows with longing
Framing characters through taxi windows, among others, always looking through frames with longing

He shoots them in mirrors, too, in which they look at themselves and one another even when they’re alone together, as though something always mediates and frames their relationship.  Even playwright Phyllis Nagy’s terrific screenplay begins at the story’s penultimate scene, then subtly flashes back to the beginning, only to lead us carefully back to the end.  Nothing could be straightforward or linear about lesbian relationships in the 1950s.

Haynes tells the story with the touches of melodrama but thoughtful care that always mark his work.  Blanchett’s stylized performance makes of Carol an out-sized figure, a mink-entombed, glamorous, rich suburbanite who first spots Therese selling toys at a department store counter and can’t keep herself from flirting with the girl.

Carol is a performance of herself, crafted from necessity, since she’s required to be married to a man named Harge (nicely played with requisite frustration, hurt, and anger by Kyle Chandler) who knows she prefers women.  They’ve produced a daughter Carol adores, even as her husband uses the girl as a bargaining chip in his increasingly futile attempts to keep Carol in their marriage.  The scenes between Blanchett and Chandler are purposefully overheated, as they both fumble through the social script dictated by the ideology of the moment.

When Carol and Therese meet and begin seeing one another, first across public tables in restaurants, and soon in Therese’s home, where Harge can predict the trajectory of their relationship even before Therese, the two women barely speak, as though there is no script for the increasingly palpable desire that sparks between them.  Blanchett and Mara’s faces carry each scene, clouding and opening, communicating longing and lust in averted glances or full-on, daring gazes.

Hiding and projecting desire at once; Blanchett as Carol
Hiding and projecting desire at once; Blanchett as Carol

Played with raw vulnerability that’s contained by a kind of performative hauteur and grandeur, Blanchett’s Carol is older, and wise enough to know she’s trying hard to be something she’s absolutely not.  She’s an adoring mother, which makes her sacrifice wrenching, but she’s a woman who can’t pretend any longer, who won’t reject the desire that’s formed her.  Carol’s body, draped in dresses that accentuate Blanchett’s curves, and gilded with gestures that give her verve and flair and completely undo Therese in her company, is both irresistible and inauthentic.  She’s packaging herself to be both alluring and unavailable, protecting herself against rejection should her instincts prove wrong.

Intimacy
Intimacy

By comparison, Therese is young but not naïve.  She intuitively understands her attraction to Carol, even if she can’t quite name it, and she commits to it willingly, letting herself be lead but never fooled.  Mara’s marvelous performance lets us watch Therese fall in love from the inside out, compared to Blanchett’s more outside-in performance.  Mara’s huge violet eyes, set close in her angular, achingly open face, register every shock of feeling.  The moments when Therese gives in to Carol, tilting her head against the older woman’s hand as she subtly but unmistakably caresses her neck, give Therese away, but also clarify that they both know the stakes in their flirtation, that neither one of them can afford to be wrong about what they read off one another.

In charge of the female gaze; Mara as Therese
In charge of the female gaze; Mara as Therese

Therese is a photographer, a familiar figure in lesbian narratives (so many of the characters in early lesbian plays were photographers, from Jane Chamber’s heroine in Quintessential Image to many others).  As White points out, Haynes wrests his film away from the perniciously male gaze. Therese’s ownership of how she sees Carol literally through her own camera lens is part of how Therese frames her own story.  Watching Carol and Therese watch one another is one of the principle pleasures of Haynes’s film; watching Therese come into her own as someone who can frame and narrate her own view of the world is another.

Haynes is a compassionate filmmaker.  He knows this story from the inside, understanding what it means to be queer in the 1950s, when people with such “natures” could lose their children and their jobs.  Bohemia could barely tolerate them, let alone the upper-crust culture from which Harge derives.  The binaries of country-city, wealth-poverty, and heterosexual-queer mark the film everywhere.  Even Carol and Therese are split by their differences from one another, which contribute to their chemistry and their desire.

Seeing Carol reminded me of what it felt like 30 years ago to see Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 film adaptation of Jane Rule’s novel, Desert of the Heart.  That book and film aren’t as elegant or eloquent as The Price of Salt and Carol, but together they mark the change in my own affective experience of lesbian representation.  I probably saw Desert Hearts three times the very week it came out in 1985.  I cathected utterly, as I saw something of myself on the big screen for the first time.  For those of us in my generation who grew up able to fathom our desire only through misdirection and spectatorial impersonation, to see something of our oceanic emotions on screen, in public, for the first time, felt cataclysmic.  It didn’t matter that Desert Hearts was kind of ridiculous as a film; it mattered that it existed.

Mara and Blanchett at the film's premiere at Cannes. Note the "look."
Mara and Blanchett at the film’s premiere at Cannes. Note Blanchett’s lovely “look” at Mara.

Carol reminds me of the power of that moment.  It returns me to the time in my own history when my desire had to be coded and left unspoken, only signaled in the hopes that those watching would be able to understand and respond.  Among its many visual, intellectual, and political pleasures, Carol offers an eloquent, moving reminder of the taboo but exhilarating, vulnerable but powerful, necessary if sometimes tragic requisites of lesbian desire before so many of us assimilated into legal marriage and domesticity.  What a gift to be returned there by a savvy, smart, talented filmmaker, and two actors whose chemistry and intelligent, wrenching performances mean so much.

The Feminist Spectator

More Books . . .

With fall well underway, and my theatre-going still reduced by my new commitments as Dean of the College, fiction remains my go-to pleasure (along with television, but more about that in another post).  Here are eight books I enjoyed in the late summer and early fall, in the order in which I read them:

Book, Mann

Hold Still, by Sally Mann. This fascinating memoir is by the noted photographer who ran afoul of “community standards” in the 1990s, around the time of the NEA debacle, when she published a book of photographs of her children and family, many of them nude.  A public firestorm about abuse and exploitation ensued, even though Mann intended nothing of the sort.  She’s a thoughtful writer, and the book is as much about her upbringing in Lexington, Virginia, where her family has a large farm, as it is about that one moment of public notoriety.  But her chapter on the political events her book of photographs inspired is very smart about their personal and social fallout.  Her chapter here on race is a bit more troubling, as she takes black men as the subjects of intimate photographs, and uses her time with them to inquire into their differences from her.  Mann is politically well meant and doesn’t shy from choices others might find suspect.  The memoir begins to feel long and her prose a bit too purple, but Mann’s meditations about art and the genesis of a photographer’s “eye” are smart and often moving.  And the photographs that illustrate the book make her prose seem like long, illustrative captions.

Book, Haruf

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. Haruf’s novel boasts beautiful, taut, terse writing as he narrates the story of two elderly neighbors, Addie and Louis, who decide to spend their nights together so that they won’t have to be alone.  Their kindness allows them to open their hearts to one another, and to the woman’s grandson, a lonely boy who comes to stay with her when his parents separate.  But Addie’s bitter son and the couple’s disapproving neighbors interfere in their relationship, allowing Haruf (who died shortly after this book was written) to paint, as usual, a poignant illustration of small-minded little towns that constrain people who have big hearts and open souls.

Book, Onset

Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie MacDonald. A stream-of-consciousness novel about Mary Rose (or MR, or “Mister”), a middle-aged lesbian writer and mother.  The central story takes place over the course of a week when she’s alone with her two children, one adopted and the other the biological child of her partner, a theatre director who’s out of town.  Memories of trauma and abuse surface, which prompt flashbacks and a layered narrative structure, as MacDonald probes and parses MR’s relationship with her removed and emotionally complicated parents.  I love MacDonald’s work, but this book gets a bit repetitious and lacks neat symmetry among the various voices she adopts to tell the story:  the third-person, which lets us look into MR’s past; her mother’s recollections, which turn out, later in the book, to be MR’s creative rewriting of the story; and long excerpts from MR’s young adult novels, in which she tries to work through her personal history through fiction and fantasy.  Catching on to the stylistic and narrative shifts of voice and perspective take a moment, and too often forestall emotional connection and build.  The structure means to be non-linear and perhaps experimental, but winds up interrupting the narrative flow with stylistic distractions.  I’ll look forward to McDonald’s next book, though, as her take on lesbian lives is always revealing and vivid.

Book, Pierpont

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont. This debut novel is another about a dysfunctional, white, privileged family.  It’s a classic betrayal story, which begins with a wrenching bang when two young children find a collection of letters left for their mother by their father’s mistress.  Pierpont tells the story of the fall-out from the shifting perspectives of the children and the parents, in a rather free-form fashion that also moves forward and back in time.  None of the characters are sympathetic; the now betrayed wife, for example, was her husband’s mistress when he was with his former wife.  But Pierpont does illuminate how random events come to form the marrow of who we are.  The interlude in the middle of the novel rather unexpectedly looks forward to the end of the story and the end of the characters’ lives.  It throws a different light on events when she picks them back up in the real-time of the novel’s second half.  Ultimately, I didn’t buy the hoopla the book inspired in other reviewers, but I wasn’t sorry I read it.  At the level of the sentence, Pierpont manages some beautiful writing and acute observations.

Book, Hankin

Summertime Girls, by Laura Hankin. Full disclosure:  Hankin was one of my very first students at Princeton, when she took a seminar with me on theatre criticism in 2008.  I’m a big fan of her work as a writer and as an actor.  Her debut novel hits all the right notes as it atomizes the complications of female friendship.  Hankin uses a parallel plot structure to explore the lives of two pairs of women friends from different generations who adore one another but can’t quite modulate their high emotional expectations.  Both pairs disappoint one another gravely, and must carefully pick their way back to one another over the detritus of hurt and blame.  Hankin gives her characters important commitments to social justice in Haiti, to the environment, and to the arts, as one of the lead characters is a singer/songwriter.  She manages to draw a compelling portrait of how difficult it is for women to maintain emotional connections when work, men, and competing commitments intervene.

Book, Awe

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox. Fox is also a former student, from when I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I’m a big fan of her writing and her latest book is no exception.  The novel is beautifully wrought and mordantly funny, even while it examines the effects of loss when a woman grieves the accidental—or possibly intentional—death of her best friend.  Fox is adept at getting to the granular level of a moment and of relationships, and observing how the micro-moments influence the macro.  Her humor is often unexpected; I found myself laughing out loud in places that were otherwise quite sad.  Ultimately, the book is hopeful about our desires and our need to soldier on, even when going forward seems unimaginable.  Fox is also terrific on relationships between mothers and daughters.  Here, the protagonist’s mother is a Holocaust survivor who judges all subsequent relationships according to whether she thinks a person would hide her Jewish family in an attic if such protection became necessary . . . very well-observed.

Book, Home Strangers

Make Your Home Among Strangers, by Jennine Capó Crucet. A wrenching story of Lizet, a Cuban-American young woman from Miami, set during the Elian Gonzalez crisis (here called “Ariel”).  Lizet applies to and enrolls at a liberal arts college in upstate New York without her parents’ knowledge or permission, receiving a full scholarship for “minority” students that enables her attend.  The elegiac story—framed by the adult Lizet looking back on this foundational moment in her life and in the lives of Miami’s Cuban expatriate community—considers the ways in which a woman like Lizet can never be “at home.”  Once she leaves Miami, she’s forever marked as “ethnic,” exotic, or simply different among the mostly white, mostly wealthy students she studies among, and forever marked as a “too smart” traitor by the family and friends she’s left behind.  Crucet captures this painful balancing act beautifully.  Two-thirds of the way through, the narrative becomes just a bit static, as she details the Miami Cuban-American community’s response to Ariel’s forced removal from his uncle’s home by a U.S. government determined to return him to his father in Havana.  Lizet’s mother, Lourdes, who feverishly works to keep Ariel in the U.S., comes to symbolize the vexing status of home(s), as she rejects her own daughter to embrace Ariel’s plight.  Lizet’s choice to find another “home,” always both impossible and necessary, strikes at the heart of the tensions experienced by smart, first-generation students of color from low-income backgrounds recruited to elite universities, who struggle to acclimate to unfamiliar surroundings without losing hold of their roots.

George

George, by Alex Gino.  This young adult novel created a stir this fall as one of the first books about a young transgendered person to receive a lot of public attention.  George, born a boy, sees herself as a girl named Melissa, but is afraid to persuade her family and her peers to see her as she sees herself.  Through a school production of an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, George practices playing Charlotte with her friend, Kelly, inhabiting the world as the kind, wise, feminine soul George feels herself to be.  Although her teacher refuses to cast her as Charlotte, George and Kelly subvert the production in a last-minute gambit that helps others see George as she wants to be seen.  Gino’s writing is empathetic, telling the story from George’s perspective and capturing the painful nuances of being a 10-year-old trying to resist gender norms.  Although the novel might be more pedagogical than elegant, its activist gesture is important and pioneering.  Gino paints George’s desires and challenges through  precise, evocative interactions with her friends and family, and captures the yearnings of her inner life in ways that make her growth poignant and topical.

The Feminist Spectator