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Relationships, friendships, fleeting acquaintanceships, sexual encounters–throughout Casey Plett’s debut short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, none end in a way that’s neat or satisfying. Shards of them–of the tiniest moment of letdown, words unsaid, a fumbled revelation–become lodged deep in the protagonist until they work themselves up to the surface again, often coming out sideways. The pain and the lessons cycle through heartache, awareness, perhaps something resembling peace, until the next encounter that sets off the balance again. Stumbling towards love–from others, from the self–is a messy affair for the twenty-something not-children yet not-quite-adults of Plett’s worlds.
These protagonists are all transgender women. This seems important to say–for, indeed, it’s part of the triumph of this book–and yet secondary, at least in the sense that this detail is not the shaping factor in many of the characters’ most affecting bonds. Sure, we see glimpses of that common narrative that tells us a woman’s trans status is the deciding factor to whether her family, friends, or lovers remain in her life. But those concerns are largely a backdrop that fades as the women make their lives anew, with hiccuping levels of success and relapse into old ties.
Then again, the fact that these women–Sophie, Lisa, Lizzy, Adrienne, Carla, Zoe, and an equal number unnamed–are trans is everything. It’s an awareness constantly running through their minds, and sometimes doubled in presence by a string of witty comebacks and what-ifs playing on a parallel mental tape. They can’t escape their trans-ness, and they’re not trying to. They’re trying to find connection and meaning, much like the other young adults that surround them in the bars, apartments, and house parties they filter through. Their gender transitions have impact, but not always as much, or in the ways, they’re expecting; more often than not, being trans draws others to them: other trans women, trans and cis lovers, trans and cis friends. Sometimes the bonds are volatile; sometimes they’re gross or wayward or draining; but sometimes they’re sweet and tender, affirming and sexy.
Of all the book’s various pairings, perhaps none are as brilliant and devastating as that between one woman, Adrienne, and her cat Glenn in the story “Portland, Oregon.” Here, Plett addresses the ever-present themes of connection, isolation, and betrayal, and asks the reader to ponder what keeps people together despite the ways that they fail each other. Yes, “people” — for although Glenn is a cat, the reader is given access to his inner life, which resembles that of a middle-aged man; we truly believe that Adrienne has access to it as well, in that peculiar way that a deeply invested pet owner seems able to converse with her animals. Adrienne is alone but for Glenn, and her economic circumstances (revealed fuzzily, as they would be through a feline medium) keep her in a job where she must be ready to chauffeur escorts at all hours of the day and night. Time loses meaning, and with it her obligations to feed and nurture her sole companion.
The microcosmic “Portland, Oregon,” however, is an anomaly for Plett’s collection. Most of her stories draw on open locations and their unbounded, yet ultimately predictable, potentials. Restaurants and bookstores and concerts are featured, sure–but also, more interestingly, hallways, sidewalks, and living rooms where a different stranger may crash on the couch any given night. These are spaces where urban twenty-somethings meet in chance encounters that send them off on unseen trajectories bound to be uniquely thrilling and disappointing. There’s a heady sprinkling of sexual hook-ups (the beautiful: “How Old Are You Anyway?,” “Lizzy and Annie,” and the ugly: “Other Women”), defining encounters with friends (the good: “Winning” and the bad: “Not Bleak,” “Other Women”), and times where women are surrounded by a sea of eyes but feel utterly unseen (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success,” “A Carried Ocean Breeze”).
And there are moments that deftly complicate the utopian vision of leaving one’s limited home life for the city to remake oneself amongst other young adults on similarly liberating paths. It’s a vision that will resonate with a lot of queer readers who make homes away from “blood” family, among their “chosen” family, but who find that there is betrayal to be found in new friendships and complex, redemptive negotiations left to be had with birth families. This uneasiness permeates Plett’s writing, coming through in dark humor and strange coping mechanisms, characters sitting with discomfort or lashing out, and sometimes in a curious second-person listing format, where narrators write “how-to” guides to themselves to get through social gauntlets of intense scrutiny, like buying a first dress or meeting up with an ex (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success,” “How to Stay Friends”).
A Safe Girl to Love is a collection full of rough edges. Eleven times, the reader is dropped into a trans woman’s life, witnesses pivotal moments, and is whisked out. The head may nod; it may and reel. The protagonist is so right-on; the next moment she’s gone. And the meaning, the profundity may come in flashes throughout, or perhaps long afterwards when–to use a favorite image of Plett’s that pops up throughout the book–a captivating tall girl passes you on the sidewalk.
A Safe Girl to Love
By Casey Plett
Hardcover, 9781627290067, 216 pp.