Chloe Caldwell writes in such an honest way that Women reads like a journal entry. In fact, I confess to mistaking the novella for memoir at first, having read Caldwell’s other work. However one categorizes it, it’s a compelling story about complicated, obsessive love.
Our unnamed female narrator first meets Finn in that oh-so-now way: Facebook. Finn declares the narrator’s book “amazing,” and the two women meet at a reading the narrator has. Eventually she moves to Finn’s city — for reasons not having to do with Finn — but she can’t stop thinking about her. When another relationship ends, that “clears the way” to figure out what exactly this all means.
I knew I found Finn’s aesthetic attractive, but I hadn’t yet explored feelings of being attracted to her, in part because I hadn’t yet explored my ability to fall for a woman. I figured if I were going to be with a woman, I would have been with one by now. I would know if I was bisexual or gay. Being a writer, I assumed I was at least mildly self-aware. It also had not occurred to me she might be interested in me as more than a friend.
It hadn’t occurred to me, even though she wrote in an email in which she said she wanted me to read on a bar stool under dim lights for her, while she sipped on a beer. Yeah, book it, her email ended. Book it. I vaguely remember staring at her brown hands while she spoke, her knuckle tattoos, thinking they were the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen.
Another problem besides “What does this all mean?” is that Finn has a girlfriend. They have been living together for ten years, but that doesn’t stop the narrator from coming over when the girlfriend is out of town, and it doesn’t stop them from having sex. “I am already aware this won’t turn out well,” she writes.
The narrator is also trying not to take so many drugs, something she used to do when she lived in another city. Instead, Finn becomes her drug. The relationship accelerates quickly, intensely, and the narrator also starts attending therapy. Does she have Borderline Personality Disorder? Is Finn bad for her? Does she just really crave all the focused attention and will get it in any way that she can? Yes, she has a lot going on inside her head.
The relationship begins to unravel, as relationships often tend to do. Life moves on, haltingly, but still circles back to this seminal woman.
Women is also about the narrator’s relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. She is very close to her mother and wants to know all about her, as though that may somehow solve the mystery of her own brain.
What I love about Caldwell’s writing is how it is satisfyingly disquieting in its relation to my own life. Selfishly, I wanted more. Not necessarily a tidier resolution — because how is life ever like that? — but I devoured the book in one sitting. I desired more exploration of these complicated feelings and the way we sabotage ourselves. The first time I ever fell in love, I didn’t know it until she had already broken my heart. Women had me thinking about that and how first heartbreaks stick with us.
I also thought about self-destruction, depression, and how it all plays into writerly self-doubt. “I didn’t do this for something to write about,” the narrator insists. But we’re always thinking about it, aren’t we?
Calling Women a novella still feels funny to me, even if it’s not a memoir. I don’t know what the label is, or even if the labels matter. And that loops right back into the narrator’s feelings — Why do we insist on labeling our attraction? Does that make it easier? Does it really? Women raises more questions than it answers, and that’s okay. It’s a wonderful book — albeit difficult, depending on your personal life/brain chemistry — and one I will revisit.
Full Disclosure: Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a division of Hobart, sent me an advance reader’s copy, so my pull quotes may differ from the finished book.