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The opening chapter of The Girls Club (Bywater Books) by Sally Bellerose lays it all out on the table. But this just a taste of what the reader will find throughout the rest of the novel—body, sisterhood, illness, family, confused sexuality. In this unabashed prose, Bellerose captures a specific time, place, and circumstance while managing to remain timeless in her story. The narrator, Cora Rose, and her two sisters, Marie and Renee, dominate this book—they make it readable, believable, engrossing.
There are many themes in The Girls Club, all woven into one narrative. First there is the body: Cora Rose, in the opening pages, is a teenager with ulcerative colitis, or “Dreaded bowel disease” as her sisters call it. There is, of course, the theme of sisterhood: Bellerose is expert in portraying the petty jealousy, the intense affection, the fierce protection and the inevitable hatred between sisters. There is also the theme of female sexuality—from babies out of wedlock to holding onto virginity to repressed and not-so-repressed lesbianism.
When we meet Cora Rose and her sisters as teenagers in the late 1960s, we are immediately drawn into their working class, Catholic, suburban world. Fine details like, “The mothers sit at the picnic table, making sure all the hair is off the corn, smearing butter, wrapping each ear in a separate piece of tinfoil,” and “Dad works hard, in a paper mill, by the canals, for lousy pay he always complains about,” unfold the setting of the book. Cora Rose’s confused sexual encounter with her childhood best friend, Stella, sets the stage for the years that follow. As a new decade dawns and she leaves high school, gets pregnant, married, and divorced, the longing of that moment in Stella’s bedroom remains with her.
As is so often the case with those repressing their sexuality, lesbians and lesbianism are all around Cora Rose. Her sisters nonchalantly talk about it, Dear Abby is addressing it in her newspaper column, her downstairs neighbors are lesbians (unknown to the naïve Cora Rose); and there is The Girls Club, a local lesbian bar that emits an increasingly agonizing pull over Cora Rose. As the novel progresses, Cora Rose becomes more and more caught up in the community of The Girls Club. She makes friends, has a dalliance with the lesbian Lothario, finally claims her sexuality, which does not come without struggle: “Ironic; I’m finally convinced I’m a lesbian and my desire is at an all-time low.”
The Girls Club is not a reticent or inhibited novel. It is not dainty or delicate and it does not skirt the issues it seeks to discuss. Bellerose has written a masterfully honest depiction of Cora Rose’s struggles—with colitis, with her emotions, with her ostomy bag, with her sexuality, with her intricate and not always happy relationships with her sisters. If struggle dominates the novel, it is not without positive consequence: Cora Rose adores her son, she continually receives unexpected support from Renee, she enrolls in college to study nursing.
The characters—Cora Rose, Marie, Renee; their boyfriends, spouses, parents, friends—are tangible. They’re relatable in their imperfection. The way they inhabit their world so completely renders them compelling, their stubborn and flawed ways make them real. The Girls Club is not a novel that exists in the characters’ heads, it is a novel that is lived out in the body, in the real world. It’s full of dirty dishes, cramped apartments, messy divorces, drug problems, and secrets. But it’s also a novel of possibility and persistence and the unlimited love of sisters.
Bellerose does not shy away from the gritty—in fact, I’m tempted to say she loves gritty, and that she’s damn good at capturing it. There is a fearlessness to her prose that is striking and with her deft touch for portraying how women interact Bellerose has constructed a novel of considerable strength. The Girls Club is eminently readable, one of those page-turners that draws you in until the last word has been read.
The Girls Club
By Sally Bellerose
Hardback, 9781932859782, 288pp