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Rivi Shenhar is thirteen years old, reeling from her parent’s divorce, and in love with her literature teacher, Michaela Berg. A young adult novel? No, it is Judith Katzir’s stunning new book, Dearest Anne.
The title comes from the organizing trope of Rivi writing a journal to Anne Frank, complete with entries signed, “Yours as always, Kitty.” Dearest Anne is further framed by Rivi, as an adult, reading her adolescent journals. These narrative strategies give the book a framework and structure through which Katzir explores the inner lives of her characters. They also develop a narrative trajectory that is compelling to the end. Katzir’s narrative and her deft and convincing characters ultimately cause the many apparati mobilized to frame this book to fall away. The adolescent internal drama of Rivi and the gorgeous love story between Rivi and Michaela that emerges and inevitably concludes are what make this book readable, compelling, and entertaining.
In her journal, Rivi is a smart, engaged adolescent young woman. She is someone that many readers will remember–or fantasize–themselves to be. Katzir never overindulges her portrayal of Rivi in the journals, and, by sustaining the narrative through Rivi’s adulthood, Katzir provides the filter of experience as well. Dearest Anne is a validation of teenage experience without isolating or pathologizing it, or sentimentalizing it through a retrospective lens.
For lesbian readers, Dearest Anne is the consummation of an iconic relationship in lesbian literature: that between student and teacher. Beginning with The Well of Loneliness and including Olivia and continuing on not only through literature but also lesbian music like Meg Christian’s “Ode to the Gym Teacher,” the relationship between the teacher and the young woman coming out is an important one. In Katzir’s hands, however, this narrative is not simply a coming out story. Nor is it the traditional unfulfilled and pining relationship that is the norm for much of lesbian literature. Rather, in Dearest Anne, this narrative is an emotional and erotic journey between two women that will intrigue, inspire and vex. Is the relationship between student and teacher worthy of taboo? Is this relationship between Rivi and Michaela wrong? As readers, we are left to sort out those answers for ourselves. Katzir provides no easy suggestions or resolutions in the book and ample information to challenge prevailing ideas.
In addition to the book’s exploration of a relationship between student and teacher, gay and lesbian readers will also be fascinated by the dynamics of a relationship between an older woman and a younger woman. Intergenerational relationships (if an age difference of less than two decades can be called that) which are sexually fulfilled figure more prominently into gay male literature than lesbian literature. This may be what caused The Feminist Press to describe the book as an “explosive love affair.” In fact, the love affair is not explosive. It is powerful for both women involved–and for readers–but not explosive; if anything the love affair is hypnotic as it unfolds. When the relationship is exposed, particularly to Rivi’s mother, it becomes complicated and demonized, but Katzir resists making the relationship fodder for moralists or tabloids. Her exploration of the relationship between Rivi and Michaela is as delicate and exacting emotionally as it is sensuous and erotic sexually.
Some gay and lesbian critics in Israel were angered by the portrayal of the two women in the book because by its conclusion neither are living as lesbians. Moreover, they charged that Katzir pathologized lesbians, looking backward to images of lesbians from the 1950s and not reflecting current realities of lesbian life today. If fiction must reflect political ideology, this may be tenable, but fiction, while responsive to the prevailing cultural conditions, ultimately is only accountable to the creative vision of its author–and to the tastes and pleasures of its readers. Katzir leaves the questions of identity as open as questions of morality in the book. Are Rivi and Michaela lesbians? Bisexual? Each are married at the conclusion of the book, though the relationship between the two of them continues to be of primary importance. While I am sympathetic to the politics of this critique, I found Dearest Anne so compelling as lesbian literature that I’m unable to quibble with Katzir’s conclusion.
Ultimately, Dearest Anne: A Tale of Impossible Love is a tour de force. Once I began reading, I couldn’t stop and didn’t want to. This book deserves careful consideration by readers and an important place in lesbian literature.
Dearest Anne: A Tale of Impossible Love
Translated by Dalya Bilu with an afterword by Hannah Ovnat-Tamir
Feminist Press / $15.95
Paperback, 336 pp.