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In her complex and beautifully written second novel about small-town life, Nat Burns situates her characters in the little town of Freshwater, North Carolina in the spring of 1985. Widowed and alone at 40, Kaylen Strauder spends her time working and hanging out with her gossipy friends in the Magnolia Club. There, the card playing is mostly a front for talking behind the backs of other people in the town.
Once a week, she goes to Appledale to visit her aging and abusive father. Throughout her life, Kaylen has been dominated by men—her father, a rough husband. She aches for something else, but she doesn’t know what it is. Then she meets the new gardener, Eda Byrne, and her very circumspect life starts to swirl just a little out of control.
Eda Byrne is significantly younger than Kaylen; at 25, she seems much surer of what she wants than Kaylen. When the two are separated for a period of days, Eda returns, takes Kaylen’s hands in hers, and explains that she missed her. Deeply.
The moment is awkward between them and Eda breaks the awkwardness by saying she’s bought a video. The movie, however, is “Desert Hearts” (the film based on Jane Rule’s classic lesbian love story, “Desert of the Heart”), and it leaves Kaylen more confused—and full of yearning—than before.
Cut to the library—where Kaylen’s card-playing buddy, librarian and novelist Jane Anne, is having a pseudo-masturbatory fantasy about Kaylen in the bathroom, which leaves her crying and breathless—and nearly caught out by one of the wizened and gossipy patrons.
Jane Anne is aching for Kaylen, but Kaylen is having Scheherazade-style dreams of Eda.
The plot becomes more complex when Kaylen’s father releases a harrowing memory for her—one she had long thought buried. When she seeks out her friend, Jane Anne, to talk, her life takes yet another dramatic turn.
House of Cards is a superb novel. More than just a standard formula lesbian romance novel, Burns’ story takes the reader through the sometimes comforting, sometimes perilous claustrophobia of small-town life, while also telling the tale of a middle-aged woman’s sexual and romantic awakening.
HOUSE OF CARDS
by Nat Burns
Paperback, $14.95, 288 pages