(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
The Fainting Room
By Sarah Pemberton Strong
Reviewed by Travis Forntey
Sarah Pemberton Strong's The Fainting Room is a dirty, dirty novel. And for this white, liberal, 30-ish, heterosexual male, calling this novel dirty isn't as easy as it sounds. The fact is that circa 2013 readers "like me" are so hyper-sensitive to certain social issues that it's sometimes difficult to know how to react to a novel like The Fainting Room.
The question is, is sex between a 16-year-old and a 30-something automatically dirty? What if it doesn't feel exploitative? What if the 16-year old is a wonderfully drawn character, who seems perfectly adult in some passages and very childish pages later, but certainly seems capable of making her own decisions? What if the sex in question is very explicit--albeit well-written and even titillating? What if the 16-year-old in the scenario plays the role of seductress?
So far, the novel in question must be automatically dirty. It must be. After all, we're talking about someone a decade removed from college having sex with a high-school sophomore (which it occurs to me is very close to the concept of Allissa Nutting's just-released Tampa, a very different book from this one).
But what if I told you that that the 30-something in the equation was a woman, that the explicit sex in question is lesbian sex, that the young girl's sexual awakening is beautifully and tenderly written, and that her infatuation/obsession with the thirty-something woman at the novel's center is somehow evocative of the quintessential American high-school crush? What if the novel moved like a romantic comedy, or a Midsummer Night's Dream-style farce? What if I told you we're rooting for the 16-year old in this equation, that by the time the explicit sex finally happens, it feels like a victory?
That's what it feels like in The Fainting Room when 16-year-old Ingrid finally seduces 30-something Evelyn. Dirty or not dirty? I'm not particularly interested in such classifications anyway, and readers of my reviews will know that I prefer my fiction a little bit (or a lot) dirty. Ms. Strong's book is the second book this year that I've read and loved from Ig publishing that pushes the reader just outside of her comfort zone (after Diana Wagman's Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets).
The plot of the novel goes like this: Ingrid is a boarding school student who gets suspended just before summer and can't stay in her dorm like she had planned. Ray Shepard, an architect, and his wife Evelyn, a former circus performer turned hairdresser turned housewife, are friends with the school's headmistress, Mrs. Luce. When Mrs. Luce can't find Ingrid's parents, the Shepard's offer to take Ingrid in. Ray and Evelyn are newlyweds, and Evelyn isn't adjusting particularly well to their new life. Ray thinks having Ingrid around might distract Evelyn from her troubles. Evelyn thinks Ingrid might become her friend. And Ingrid wants to stay with the Shephards to avoid returning to her stepmother and the suburban California existence she escaped when she moved east. Over the course of the novel, Ingrid helps Ray write and detective story, and he becomes increasingly, even disturbingly, infatuated with her. Ingrid, meanwhile, is captivated by Evelyn's mysterious past.
Ms. Strong has created a wonderfully-drawn character in Evelyn. She's beautiful, though not self-confident, with brilliant red hair and a past as a tattooed lady that threatens to reveal itself if she doesn't keep her skin carefully hidden under the uncomfortable long-sleeved blouses she wears. She also has a recently dead former husband--the circus's sword swallower--who has an abusive alcoholic. But where Ms. Strong has done her best work is in capturing Evelyn's many anxieties. Evelyn has slipped into a "Dream Life" she never never thought she could have. It's heartbreaking how badly she wants to become the kind of person who fits into that life, the kind of person she thinks Ray wants and deserves--that is, someone who can cook gourmet meals, knows about fine wine and the perfect cheese to pair it with, knows about art and music, is comfortable carrying on a conversation with Ray's fancy friends, is at home in a beautifully restored 19th century house and also in her own skin. It's a daunting task, and it's impossible not to grown fonder of Evelyn as the novel goes on. It's doubly heartbreaking that Ray doesn't want Evelyn to be the new version of herself that she's trying to become, he simply wants the woman he fell in love with, although he might prefer her to be a little less troubled by what he views as trivial problems.
As the summer goes on, things get, well, hotter. I've always loved a novel that goes off the rails in the final act and becomes a new book entirely. I've also long admired authors who aren't afraid to tread where others might not go. No one could accuse Ms. Strong of fearful writing, and her ear for ecstatic and even worshipful language in the erotic scenes is undeniable. This one comes highly recommended, especially for readers who don't mind a little hot, hot lesbian sex.
Out of 10: 9.5