Thursday, May 30, 2013

Women Float by Maureen Foley

Book: Women Float
Author: Maureen Foley
Publisher: CCLaP Publishing

Be II by Barnett Newman
Several years ago, I took a day trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which houses one of the finest art collections in the world—its galleries and Sculpture Garden feature a veritable treasure trove of European and American paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, and decorative arts.  

While I can’t claim to be a true aficionado of fine art, I can most certainly appreciate the masterpieces by artists such as Raphael, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rodin, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, and Botticelli. 

However, I admit to being stumped when I wandered across the painting titled Be II by an artist named Barnett Newman.

“What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man's fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden? For the artists are the first men.”           
— Barnett Newman

At the time, I had no clue that Mr. Newman was one of the major figures in abstract expressionism, and one of the foremost of the color field painters. All I knew was that he had a square white painting with a black line on one side and an orange line on the other side hanging right there in the middle of the National Gallery of Art.

Well, that, and the fact that it looked suspiciously like something I’d drawn with crayons and cream-colored construction paper way back in Kindergarten. For the sake of argument, I’ll call it, Still Life with Milk Carton.

Onement VI by Barnett Newman
The Newman painting was confusing, but I did what I normally do, which was to tell myself, “Appreciation of art, like so many things in life, is entirely subjective.” Be that as it may, I almost coughed up a lung when I read that Barnett Newman’s Onement VI was sold at Sotheby’s for $43.8 million dollars only a few weeks ago. 

The flier for the sale poetically proclaimed, “Newman overwhelms and seduces the viewer with the totality of its sensual, cascading washes of vibrant blue coexisting with Newman’s vertical “Sign” of the human presence, his iconic and revolutionary zip.”

"Revolutionary zip," my ass, it’s a white line.

But I digress.

Women Float by Maureen Foley is every bit as cinematic as it is literary, and traces the life of lonely pastry chef and pathological liar, Win, who lives a very un-Californian existence. Despite growing up in a sleepy seaside town, she never quite learned how to swim. For most non-swimmers, this is an uncomfortable fact of life, but for Win, it’s the defining state of her very existence—especially since Win’s mom, Janie, a pro-surfer consumed by wanderlust, left only days after plucking her water-challenged nine-year old daughter from the foamy depths of the ocean.

After obsessing about the fate of her mother and her inability to swim for twenty years, Win finally confronts her guilt and hydrophobia and signs up for swimming lessons, hoping for insight into why her mother hit the road all those years ago. As she comes to terms with the stark revelation that her phobia is about much more than water, she learns that her granola-loving next-door girl crush has life plans that include a lot more than just her. Reeling with a new-found appreciation for the edges on her life, Win takes a long, hard look at all that she has and has not become, awakening to the fact that she is more like Janie than she ever dared imagine.

Women Float is the lyrical diary of a life half lived, bursting to the seams with self-reflection and self-abasement. Win is a sad, distracted, and lost soul, whose most precious memory, her ninth birthday, is inexplicably linked to being abandoned by her mother. Her friendships have a depth and momentum that are built on acceptance and trust, and even strangers find themselves invested in helping her to wade out further into the waters of her existence. But Win remains rooted to the edge of her life, until she begins to accept that women float, and finally she rises to the surface of her life, floating on the tides and moving with the currents.

Maureen Foley’s fiction debut paints a poetic tale, teeming with subtle humor and brimming with the rich essence of a small coastal town. Her characters are well defined, yet splashed with odd bits of eccentricity and pathos, and her dialogue is apropos of all things Southern California. Her story has a gentle cadence, much like a soothing rhythm—ebbing and flowing, rising and falling. Her mermaid metaphors are worth the price of admission.

Women Float tells the coming out story of a lesbian, but it’s not a lesbian coming out story. It is literature and it is poetry, and it is an insightful look into the life of a woman on the verge of something massive. It manages to be a gentle parable, even though it is neither soft nor sweet.

Now, as I think back to my reaction to Barnett Newman’s Be II and Onement VI, I undeniably know that some readers will appreciate this novella for all that it is, and others simply will not, for myriad reasons. 

Either way, Women Float is undeniably art.


  1. Sounds lyrical and rather intriguing. Great cover. As for Mr Barnett...I think I'll pass.
    Nice job, Ms West.


    1. Hiya Barrett, thanks, as always, for stopping in to sit a spell. This was a truly different book, and one that slowly worked its way into the trenches of my brain. As for Mr. Barnett, I don't get it, but he sure does. Good for him. Oorah!

  2. Yummy review. You are the Barnett Newman of lesbian fiction reviews - deceptively simple but edged with colorful sang froid and masterful elequonce.

    1. Oh, my—how I do love it when you speak to me en Français. [fans herself rapidly]