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Content warning for sexual abuse. Content warning for inherited trauma. Content warning for mention and omission of genocides, past and current. Content warning for heaviness of spirit. Content warning for heart/broken lesbians in literature and in life. Content warning for the sadistic impulse of hearts that want to soar and attach, despite bodies, despite violence, despite The Weight of It All. Content warning for Irish Beret Man in Paris.
Three tragi-comic queer stories on the way to Amy Feltman’s Willa & Hesper.
One, On Processing. One night at the bar my sweet young queer-as-in-gay-male roommate leans over to me, queer-as-in-lesbianish-woman-perceived person, him on Grindr, swiping, me on text, crying over some love or some impossibility to love and simultaneously about some latest terrible news, and about our histories and childhoods. “What is it that you’re all always processing?” He asks. I say trauma–personal, spiritual, physical, political, inherited, communal. He sits with that for a moment. “Well how do you all make time to have sex?” Is it possible to have sex despite the weight of the world? Read on for an answer.
Two, On Doomed Lesbians. One night the person I was falling deeply in love with asked me if I was romantic, and I responded, essentially “the world is ending, the stars are dead, love me?” Is it possible to love and be loved at the apocalypse? Read on for an answer.
Three, On Beret Man. In my 20s, I had a poster of Doisneu’s Baiser de L’Hotel De Ville, you know the one.
It was probably on the wall of your college friend’s roommate, the friend you were in love with, the roommate you were judging because what could be more Hallmark? Kissing in Paris? Yawn. But I’ve loved that picture because of Beret Man. See him? Stage right, peripheral ghost, brow-furrowed, confused, looking at this couple as if to say, how can they just kiss like that, how can they be so light? Can you carry on when you’ve gone from the radiant kiss at the center of the picture to the beret man at the periphery? Read on for an answer.
Amy Feltman’s Willa & Hesper takes on these questions and their weight. The titular characters fall in love in alternating point of view chapters, which betrays immediately what Beret Man would have warned you all along: that ampersand aside, their love is doomed, we won’t be seeing them for long in the same frame. They break up (spoiler alert) in the first fifty pages, and because of that, you might not call this novel a love story.
Willa is a character with weight. Her weight is not physical, although we learn that her mother wishes she were skinnier–“I watched her evaluating my body, calculating how many more pounds I weighed than she ever had.” I wish her embodiment were more fully explored, god knows we need more fat characters expressing sexiness and love. Willa’s weight comes from family–her mother, weighed down by her father’s slow succumbing to the fog of painkillers, says of her queerness, “you, at least, could make things easy for me.” It comes from history–“I felt like [the holocaust] had already happened to me. That I was carting around these repressed memories.” It comes from a sexual assault that occurs on page two. We find her at “the saddest table,” Her eyes “gliste[n] with pre-tears.”
Hesper is twenty, Californian, fresh out, and having kissed a girl and liked it, does not want to share this weight. She states, “I was ill-equipped for other people’s trauma.” Confronted by Willa’s willingness to commit to a lifetime of shared heaviness on what seems to be their second date at a Georgian Restaurant with no street facing windows (or surely we would all have seen that battered U-haul of trope barreling towards their tender young relationship), Hesper runs.
The light is radiant, “We were inseparable… it was palpable and luminescent,” but brief. We experience the break up from Hesper’s point of view, told through a future projection with two layers of removal. “I knew then that I would end things. Abruptly, entirely.” The novel hiccups over the break-up almost impatiently, more concerned with what happens next: Willa & Hesper diverging, like magnets with the forces reversed.
Hesper goes to the Republic of Georgia with her family, dragged along reluctantly towards her share of The Weight. Before the break up, all she had of her family’s history was a kitten named Tbilisi–a sweet metaphor, history as kitten. After, it’s all there for her: inherited trauma, living history, family dysfunction, and the subtle homophobia of her mother asking her to be less gay in public. Willa goes straight into the heart of it, joining a heritage trip for grandchildren of Holocaust victims, touring concentration camps and seeking out her connection to her faith versus the overt homophobia she has experienced in its religious expression. In other words, Willa & Hesper is not the queer love story you read to your lovers in bed.
Despite not being the story of a love, Willa & Hesper’s is a love story. In his “Hymns to the Broken,” Louis Alberto Urrea paraphrases Etheridge Knight: “in art…you’ve got to be telling someone you love them.” Willa & Hesper is a love story to being twenty, in a writing workshop, and a heartbroken lesbian. This novel carries all the historical trauma and Price of Salt-saltiness and Well of Loneliness and baggage, complete with your writing workshop mates in their suppressed homophobia who try to turn what you’ve written into metaphors. It’s a love letter to being weighty, like Willa, not of body but of emotion, and risking love anyway.
If the book is sometimes hard to give yourself over to, it’s partly because Willa can’t draw herself away from the abyss while Hesper avoids it so much. The things Willa sees and seeks are so dark that the shadows begin to run together. Break up melodrama, personal trauma, and inherited trauma do coexist, but in Willa’s eyes, it’s hard to separate them. Similarly, it is hard to see what was so devastating about losing Hesper, whose emotional avoidance makes her hard to access. Hesper and her family banter hard and pretends not to feel precisely because of how much they do feel, but it’s sometimes hard to parse the difference between cleverness and shallowness–both are eventually distancing.
It’s also a little frustrating to read a novel about queers in the post-Trump and pre-Trump cisheterowhitesupremacistpatriarchies who are able to hold so much space for their grandparents’ genocides while mostly looking over the present violence on the streets and at the borders. The novel suggests that they’re getting there (“Now we have to do more……we have been lucky……A lot of other groups never got to live in the safety cocoon.”), but I personally found it hard to believe that Willa and Hesper, the only two queers in the book until the final chapters, do not call one another or anyone they love after the election. My own response was the urge to call everyone I’ve ever known (socially and Biblically) and everyone they’d known all the way back to Eve–if no church in the wild, then definitely no exes at the apocalypse.
But Willa & Hesper allows emotions, even when they are messy, and despite being somewhat lacking in queer joy (my info is below, will someone please send me a novel bursting with joy?), it’s here to remind us that feelings aren’t metaphors. They’re real. They’re valid. It renders what physical abuse and sadness feel like–as when Willa tells a boy “please think of me as a jellyfish,” not a body..
The novel contains what might be a perfect depiction of what it means to be emotionally brave in a place where so much violence has taken place, whether like Willa you go all the way to Germany, or whether you can just maybe step outside: You scream. You blow your whistle until you faint. You scream some more. And then you change your life dramatically. This scene at the concentration camp is a triumph of emotional resilience. In the face of trauma, break up, family rejection and assault, “I am not an afterthought,” Willa decides. “I can be and keep being.”
You can reach for this book because it points to historical violence and says: yeah, that’s still there, you’re not crazy. Or you can reach for this book because it asks or tries to asks, some of the things queer literature, and most particularly lesbian literature has been so good at asking for a good long while. The answers, in this book, in this reviewer’s life, and hopefully in general:
Willa & Hesper is not an easy read. It’s more blood, tears, and bitter herb than microplastics, silicone, and Astroglide (would you please write more of the latter for me?), but of all the ways that writers, queers, especially queer writers express love, you might someday need an “I love you” that looks like this:
A slice of walnut cake, a letter from your ex, and someone saying gently across 275 or so pages, it’s ok, Turnip. There’s room here for your ghosts, your body, and all your feelings too.
Willa & Hesper
By Amy Feltman
Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover, 9781538712542, 304 pp.