Sunday, February 24, 2013

Six of One by Rita Mae Brown

Even though it isn't as well-known as Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown's Six of One is practically a lesbian classic; it was first published in 1978 and I think it's still in print. A member in my Two Bichons book group chose Six of One for our February discussion because a) it's one of her comfort reads and b) she suggested a lighter book might be welcome after January's Are You My Mother?

Six of One is set in Runnymede, a small town in Maryland divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. Brown moves back and forth in time with a colourful cast of characters. A thirty-five-year-old bisexual woman, Nickel (Nicole), is the first-person narrator. (Which struck me as awkward in the sections that take place before Nickel was born). Her adoptive mother, Juts (Julia Ellen), and aunt Wheeze (Louise) have been scrapping viciously since they were small girls. In 1980, the contemporary part of the novel, the sisters are in their 70s and still at each other. They say things like "piss on your teeth!" Their constant bickering set my teeth on edge.

Brown has said that the character Julia Ellen is based on her own adoptive mother of the same name. I often felt Brown's personality (and comments she's made, like "Next time anybody calls me a lesbian writer, I'm going to knock their teeth in") interfered with my immersion in the world of her novel.

It also doesn't help that her characters speak lines that are better suited to cross-stitch, framed on a wall. "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly" and "Life is the principle of the universe." Celeste Chalfonte, an aristocratic lesbian, "didn't look older than forty-five, but in her mind she felt the full sixty years of her life on earth. Not that she felt old, but the years weed out camouflages of character, leaving a truer self."

Celeste's unorthodox life mirrors that of lesbians living in Paris during the same period in the early 20th century, women like Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. Celeste isn't possessive about her longtime lover, Ramelle. When Ramelle also falls in love with Celeste's brother, the siblings take turns sharing her company. Celeste has other love interests, including a longstanding unrequited thing for Cora, the (straight?) mother of Juts and Wheeze. In a set-up that stretched my credulity to the limit, Celeste and Cora innocently end up naked in the same bed. Brown makes a joke of it:

"Lord, darling, you are wound up tighter than a drum. It's cold enough outside; don't freeze up on me. Come here. Cora pulled Celeste to her and hugged her. The divine Miss Chalfonte didn't know whether to shit, run or go blind."

I won't even go into the vigilante justice scene that bothered me even more. The book wasn't for me, but I'm in the minority. I found it more flippant than funny. Only one other member of my book group felt a similar impatience with Brown's style. The rest, including one who had disliked it when she first read it in the 80s, found it heart-warming and enjoyable. I'd love to hear thoughts from other readers on both sides of the fence.

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