One question that came up on Saturday was “What books won’t you read” which is one I find hard to answer. The fairly flippant reply was “anything written by contemporary men” which is sort of true because I don’t read much contemporary fiction (by men or women), I suppose I should really have said I just won’t read anything that doesn’t appeal to me (I’ve been thinking about this a lot since) it’s not a very specific response but it’s accurate.
It’s something I’m still thinking about because as I come to write up my thoughts on this particular book I realise I have quite a collection of books about lesbian relationships. This is a theme that clearly appeals to me probably because of the way roles are worked out between protagonists who generally start from a point of unambiguous equality. (Or something like that.)
The back blurb for ‘Desert of the Heart’ reads thus
“Evelyn Hall, an English professor, is in Reno to obtain a divorce and put an end to her sixteen year marriage. During her six weeks’ stay at a boarding house, she meets Ann Childs, a free spirited casino worker and fifteen years her junior. Evelyn is about to be overwhelmed by more than just the staggering, spare beauty of the Nevada desert...”
Which is basically what happens, Sarah Waters says ‘A significant novel by any standards, and an undisputed lesbian classic’ but for me the big thing about this book is the way it talks about work.
Meanwhile the relationship element rings true to me, especially the intense conversations between Ann and Evelyn - they talk about philosophy and feelings in a way that feels clunky but at the same time realistic, however the way Rule talks about work, and Ann’s work particularly is something else entirely. Ann is a change apron in a casino. A job that seems to entail carrying a massive weight of cash around for hours at a time (my estimate is about 25kilos) whilst keeping a watchful eye on the gaming floor.
The thing with Ann is that she’s a clever and able young woman working in an apparently dead end job which she clearly gets both satisfaction and inspiration from. For the time being what she does provides her with a kind of family albeit a dysfunctional one, and a rhythm to her life that has nothing to do with earning money. Most of her friends including the work ones, disapprove of what Ann does but not Evelyn who has a ‘respectable’ profession so perhaps has a better idea of what a bear pit any job can lead you into, and who can see the skill that Ann needs in her work especially when it comes to handling people. What fascinated me were the details of how the apron is worn; that if you turn round to quickly the weight will swing out of control and is enough to knock you down, how tired Ann is at the end of a shift – tired enough to cry and to struggle to function, how break patterns work, and how she justifies her job both to herself and others.
Work and relationships are the two things we’re most likely to define ourselves by – to me Ann’s need to justify what she does suggests that she’s not the free spirit her sexuality suggests. She’s neither proud of nor indifferent to her job, and the job itself seems to be used as a challenge to convention where I might have expected her preference for women to be.
In fact the more I think about it the more I think this would be a great book group read; there’s a lot going on and a lot to talk about – my book about work and identity will be someone else’s love story, and another’s tragedy so in conclusion I can only agree with Sarah Waters and repeat ‘A significant novel by any standards...’