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Elan Barnehama’s appealing debut novel, Finding Bluefield, is both ambitious and successful on many levels. While the novel can be categorized as a historical romance, many strong components elevate the story above the typical formula of its genre. Yes, the love story is there and it’s a solid one that sustains, but the romance here is between two women, a doctor-in-residence named Barbara and a small-town waitress with endless charm named Nicky.
Barnehama has created two compelling, engaging protagonists that certainly resonate long after their story has ended. Spanning over two decades, Barnehama serves as a terrific guide as he takes us through the journey of Barbara and Nicky’s often challenged love affair. Immediately it becomes clear that Barnehama’s most strategic choice is in making the two women opposites: Barbara has the practical personality and Nicky is the inquisitive dreamer. This provides many opportunities for the characters to assert their identity, giving each considerably more depth with each occurrence.
Like all great love stories, Barbara and Nicky meet by chance (or it their destiny) when Barbara happens to stop in at the diner where Nicky waits on tables. By the time the first slice of blackberry pie has been eaten, we know these two women are meant for each other.
By setting Finding Bluefield primarily in the South (when the novel begins we are in Virginia in the early 1960’s before shifting later to upstate New York), Barnehama is able to extend beyond just the societal rejections of Barbara and Nicky’s love. Through them and the equally captivating cast of supporting characters, Barnehama explores and confronts racism, homophobia, feminism, sexism, gender roles, sibling rivalry, and motherhood. I wouldn’t classify this as a political novel per se, but Barnehama doesn’t hold back or shy away from heavy, controversial topics. Through each, the love between Barbara and Nicky intensifies, even when their relationship is put to the test time and time again. Barnehama never misses a beat, incorporating many iconic moments from history and utilizing each to add layers of authenticity and conflict to Barbara and Nicky’s ever-changing world.
Barnehama’s novel is unique on many levels considering that at the heart of it Finding Bluefield is – at first glance – a lesbian love story. He is one of the few authors I’ve read who blatantly rejects the write what you know myth and instead focuses on story, regardless of gender and sexuality. I anticipate this novel will receive more scrutiny than it would if it had been written by a female author. Many readers (and more likely critics) will ask the all-too obvious question: can a male author fully convey the female experience? Certainly the same was questioned of Wally Lamb when he penned the literary masterpiece She’s Come Undone. Like Lamb, Barnehama takes many risks and – just by simply writing the novel – challenges the very audience he’s writing for. By doing so, he is again reminding readers and critics alike that the sole purpose of a great writer is to tell the best story possible. In Finding Bluefield, Barnehama achieves this, leaving his readers with a well-crafted epic saga about two women who are searching for a world in which their love can survive.
By Elan Barnehama
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602827448, 224 pp.