Book Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

This remarkable book pulls off the tricky feat of making us care about characters in two separate narratives, with neither one feeling like filler or killing time before returning to the important part of the story.

In Pulp, we follow a contemporary storyline about a high school senior, Abby, who is out and proud and very matter-of-fact about how diverse and free her world is. Most of her friends fall somewhere within the queer rainbow, gay, bi, non-binary, and various permutations of all sorts. And it’s all good. Abby is part of a close-knit group of friends who delight in being politically active, attending rallies, fighting for justice, and making demands for society to be better than it is.

Abby’s life is not perfect, though. She still pines for her ex-girlfriend Linh, she’s stuck on her senior project, and her parents are doing a lousy job of hiding their inability to tolerate one another. She chooses the topic of her senior project at the last possible second, deciding to study lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s and write her own version of these novels, inverting the tropes that were mandatory in the genre.

In the historical timeline, we meet Janet Jones, also a high school senior, whose life is highly regimented by her overly protective and rigid parents and their world of country clubs and social correctness. Janet stumbles across a lesbian pulp paperback, reads it, and realizes that these unnamed feelings of hers are actually shared by other people. She becomes desperate to connect with the author of one of these books, and at the same time, realizes that her feelings toward her best friend Marie are much more than just friendship.

The two narratives intersect in fascinating and unpredictable ways. Janet’s storyline is the more upsetting of the two for much of the book, largely because the world it shows is so hostile and repressive. Pulp does an excellent job of showing the terror of being gay at a time when there were no legal protections or rights for anyone who dared step outside the bounds of “normal”. Set during the Lavender Scare, this novel shows good, decent, hard-working people being hounded out of their families and jobs, spied upon, and having their lives ruined, all because of who they love and how they identify. Being closeted was a necessity, and the danger of discovery drove countless people to deny their own identities out of a desperation for survival.

Through Abby’s eyes, the awfulness of the 1950s for the LGBTQ community is especially vivid, as Abby’s modern perspective is challenged by her research into what others’ lives once were like. Seeing Abby come to realize the importance of the brave people who created new ways to live, form a community, and remain true to the themselves is quite beautiful.

I was less invested in the love story aspects of both Abby and Janet’s arcs, but very much loved getting to know them as people, to appreciate their challenges and strengths, and how each struggled in different ways and at different times to find themselves and to find a way to lead an authentic life.

Pulp is both a great novel and a great lesson on 20th century history. Reading about this chapter in LGBTQ history is moving and upsetting. The world has come so far, and there’s still a long way to go, but I think especially for the target YA audience, Pulp provides a fascinating and important perspective on social action, diversity, and identity.

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The details:

Title: Pulp
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

LiesAuthor Robin Talley gives us a stunning look at the school integration wars of the 1950s in her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Seen through the eyes of two high school girls — one black, one white — caught up in the terror and day-to-day struggles of the early days of a Virginia high school’s forced integration, Lies takes us behind the historical record into the hearts and minds of the young people who had to actually live it all.

We’ve all read about integration in our history books and seen the photos of the Little Rock Nine being escorted into school by police through a jeering crowd. But what must it have been like for the students themselves? What did they feel, and what did they want?

In Lies We Tell Ourselves, we see both sides of the struggle through the two main characters, Sarah and Linda. Sarah is an honors student at the black high school in town; Linda is the white daughter of the town’s virulently anti-integration newspaper editor. When the court ruling comes down which forces the local white school to open its doors to black students, Sarah, her younger sister Ruth, and eight other students become the living symbols of integration. Once the NAACP wins its case, it’s the children who have to walk the path laid out for them by their parents and other adults. Everyone is just looking for an excuse to call integration a failure, so the pro-integration side lays out strict rules for the children: No fighting, no arguing, no answering back, no defending oneself, no extracurricular activities. Go along, get along — just walking the halls is an achievement, so don’t do anything that’ll hand the other side an excuse to say it doesn’t work.

The experiences of Sarah and the others are horrifying. Yelled at, spit upon, assaulted, impeded, harrassed, and threatened, entering the school and walking to their classrooms each day is like walking through a minefield. When someone spits on Sarah or dumps milk over her head, she can’t react, but must simply move on through the day. If she gives any hint that she’s upset, it’ll give the segregationists fuel for their argument that no one is ready for mixing of the races.

I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty. This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse. Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.

From Linda’s perspective, the “agitators” — the black students — are just ruining her senior year. Why couldn’t they stay in their own schools? Why do they need to come and cause such chaos in her own perfect little world? Even worse for Linda is her internal conflict — is it possible that the “Southern values” she’s been raised with are wrong? Is it possible that the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis isn’t about preserving tradition, but is simply ugliness and hatred?

For eighteen years, I’ve believed what other people told me about what was right and what was wrong. From now on, I’m deciding.

The day to day realities of 1959 in Virginia are simply awful to read about through the lens of our 21st century, post-Civil Rights sensibilities. The actions within the school are revolting. The verbal harassment, including the most disgusting racial epithets, are constant. The teachers and administration routinely turn a blind eye. In home ec class, Sarah is given her own sets of pots and pans to use, so that white kids don’t have to handle implements dirtied by black hands. It goes on and on, and reading about it through the words of students living it is incredibly painful.

Complicating matters even further for Sarah and Linda is that they’re thrown together as partners on a project for French class, and as they begin to know one another, each is reluctantly aware of a growing attraction toward the other. The girls spend much of their time together arguing, but beneath the racial divide, there’s a simmering interest that has nothing to do with skin color. As each girl realizes that dating boys and pretending to fit in doesn’t really work for her, entirely different questions about shame, sin, and what’s “natural” and “normal” surface.

I almost felt like telling Sarah and Linda, “don’t you have enough on your plates right now?” Just attempting a friendship is enough to get Linda ostracized and ridiculed and for Sarah to become even more of a target for the thuglike white boys from school. To pursue a same-sex relationship in the South of the 1950s seems foolhardy in the extreme, and while it was moving to see what the girls go through and how caught in a web of hatred they each find themselves, I’m not sure that the story needed one more element to put the characters at risk.

That said, I found Lies We Tell Ourselves to be a moving, important, and brave book. It’s eye-opening to take a well-known chapter of history and revisit it through the perspectives of people who lived through it. I’d thought I could imagine what it must have been like to live through those days, based on reading history books and watching documentaries. But sometimes, it takes fiction to make facts come alive, and that’s what the author achieves here. By giving us a personal point of entry to the experience, we walk the halls of the high school with Sarah and Linda and experience the fear, the hate, the humiliation, and the absolutely insane level of courage it must have required simply to take the few steps from one classroom to another.

Sarah and Linda are remarkable, unforgettable characters, and while the book ends at the conclusion of their high school careers, I can’t help thinking about how much better their lives will be from this point forward. They’ve each changed dramatically, and they’ve stood at the center of social change and survived.

Lies We Tell Ourselves would make a fantastic addition to any US History class curriculum, but more than that, its story of two brave girls trying to find their way and do what’s right should be widely read by teens and adults, in school or out. Robin Talley’s fine writing gives us a front-row seat to a difficult and important chapter of our nation’s recent history — but beyond the social value, she’s also written just a really good novel that conveys true emotion and personal growth.

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The details:

Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin Teen via NetGalley