Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose

Book:  The Girls Club
Author:  Sally Bellerose
Publisher:  Bywater Books
Before I launch into my review of the award-winning book The Girls Club by author, Sally Bellerose, I want to offer up a big round of thanks to Guest Bloggers, Barrett and Cat for stopping by The Rainbow Reader and filling in for me while I was toasting my proverbial buns in sunny Key West. 

As Barrett so aptly noted, it’s always a little intimidating when you’re asked to diddle in someone else’s sandbox.  Job well done, Ladies!!!

Sally Bellerose and
Jeanette Winterson
take on similar topics
in their debuts
Back in 1985, Jeanette Winterson offered up Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a giant in contemporary literature.  The book explored the themes of religion, growing up with a disability, coming of age, and sexual identity.  While often tabbed as semi-autobiographical, many critics claim it is really bildungsroman.

It sounds really frou frou, but it’s just a textbook Goethian term for a coming-of-age story that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, and in which character change is a central thesis.

The reason I bring it up is because there are a striking number of parallels between Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and The Girls Club – the easy ones are religion, physical challenge, coming of age, and sexual identity.  The not-so-obvious ones are that both authors wrote parts of themselves into their stories and that neither one of them consider their stories to be players in traditional lesbian fiction circles. 

As Ms. Winterson said recently, “I've never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.”

So, parallels between the two stories?  Yep, they’re there. 

However, the two stories and the characters within them couldn’t be any more different – they are both powerhouses, dealing with the human condition in its most basic form.

The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose follows the lives of the LaBarre sisters, Marie, Renee, and Cora Rose.  Told in the first-person by youngest sibling, Cora Rose, the reader follows the lives of these three young, white, working-class woman all coming of age in the unsettled times of the 1970s.  As the main protagonist, Cora Rose copes with a chronic illness her sisters not-so-jokingly refer to as "the dreaded bowel disease," struggles with poor decision-making and her emerging sexuality, and then slowly faces the growing disparity between her human desires and her traditional Catholic upbringing.

Covering the span of about a decade, the readers follow Cora Rose and her sisters through four major stages of their lives to this point – the book is broken into four parts.

In Part One the reader is introduced to Cora Rose, her sisters, and her best friend Stella.  The sisters have a typical relationship, one minute protecting each other and the next inflicting humiliation and teenage angst.  Cora Rose begins to realize that her feelings for Stella are more than platonic, and has a “Come to Jesus” moment with herself when the two kiss.  But Stella’s family moves away, and a rift develops between the girls and the families.  Marie gets pregnant and drops out of high school.  Renee, the “good” daughter, goes to nursing school, and Cora Rose, desperate to prove she’s not a lesbian as her oldest sister repeatedly suggests, gets pregnant the first time she has sex.

In Part Two, the reader sees Cora Rose trying to love her husband, and succeeding at being a good mother.  The relationships between the three sisters continue bob and weave, sometimes providing strength and insight, and sometimes inviting brutal honesty and unwelcome insight.  Marie continues to be in love with her baby daddy, who she won’t marry, and date an ongoing string on “not quite right guys”.  Renee is an RN, lives at home with mom and dad, and is saving herself for marriage.  To her, sex is just messy, emotionally and physically.  And, Cora Rose has a confusing meeting with the lesbians downstairs.

Part Three reveals Cora Rose's honesty about not loving her husband and wanting a divorce.  But nothing is easy.  Her “dreaded bowel disease” has proceeded to the point of needing an ostomy, she doesn’t have a job, and she needs benefits and a place to live.  She begins to lean more on her sisters for support with her son and her own emotional confusion.  She finds herself drawn to a lesbian bar called The Girls Club, and finally admits and submits to her craving for women.  She takes a part-time, minimum wage job, tackles nursing school, and fights constantly with her estranged husband.  Marie continues to love a man she won’t have, and have a man she won’t love.  Renee finally begins to realize that she has been better living as a part of everyone else’s’ lives than she has been at living her own.  But still the sisters build up, break down, and make each other stronger.  Day-by-day. Battle-by-battle.

In Part Four, Cora Rose finally comes to terms with the religious, physical, and social prejudices that have dictated her life since she was a teenager.  She and her sisters are finally gaining perspective and control in their lives, and emerging stronger and healthier for the fractured journey that has led them to this point.  

After all, Sisterhood is Powerful.

The Girls Club may be a debut novel for Sally Bellerose, but she is a long-honored writer.  Her storytelling is crisp, clean, and free of the gratuitous sturm und drang that often renders great fiction into mediocre narrative.  The story is fully conceived, well paced, and tightly written.  The characters are flesh and blood, strong and weak, lost and found.  The writing is both simple and elegant, yet befitting of the characters and their station in life.  The editing is flawless, and the cover art apropos of everything inside.

As a reviewer, it’s impossible not to mention that The Girls Club is a powerful piece of contemporary literature.  It’s part historical drama, part autobiography, part coming of age novel, and part modern-day Little Women.  Sally Bellerose tells a story that seems effortless, but is rife with complexity:  Sisterhood, sexuality, chronic illness, growing up, borderline poverty, and religious conflict.  Each topic could easily carry a book itself, and all together could easily lead a story astray.  But that doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t even come close.

From the beginning, Ms. Bellerose gives her characters a gritty complexity tinged with humanity and humor.  No one is always right, and no one is always wrong.  Good people do bad things, and winning doesn’t come easily.  Decisions are harder to admit to yourself than to others, and most of the time what ends up happening isn’t really fair.  

The Girls Club is a top-tier book, and by rights should win many more awards. However, it is not formulaic Lesfic.  It is contemporary fiction, and should be recognized as part of that broader spectrum.  There’s as much straight sex as lesbian sex, the main protagonist has a disease that is messy and can be unpleasant for some readers to handle.  The sisters are not always nice to each other, and the happy ending is only part of the beginning.

Still, this book needs to be read by members of both the queer and straight communities – it’s really that good.  Sally Bellerose is a mainstream writer, and one of the most talented ones in the business.  She has a strong voice, and isn’t afraid to take on topics that other people see as taboo. She also isn't afraid to tell her own story.

This book wasn't necessarily warm and fuzzy, but it was almost impossible to put down.  Without hesitation, I’m giving The Girls Club a solid 5.2 out of 6 on The Rainbow Scale.


  1. Wow - thanks for the generous beautifully written review. I am proud to be published by Bywater books, a lesbian press and proud to be part of a queer community of writers and readers. However, I admit it is a thrill to see my work considered as part of mainstream literature. Thanks again, for shining light on our art and helping to keep our work and community vibtant. Sally Bellerose

  2. Hi Sally, it was an honor to review your book. Keep 'em coming . . . if you write them, we will read.

  3. Another fine review. I'll admit, I orient my reading toward all lesbian, all the time, but this review has made me want to reach out and try this book. Looks fascinating and real.

  4. Hi Karen! A lot of readers tend to orient themselves to "all lesbian" - the thing is, the main protagonist is a lesbian, she's just on a longer journey - one that is very familiar to a lot of women. It is, indeed, both fascinating and real.