Book Review: Leaving Normal—Adventures in Gender

This year I want to start reviewing books by lesbians. If you have any recommendations, please send them along!

I am very pleased with the first lesbian book I have read this year which is Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender by Rae Theodore, who blogs at https://middleagebutch.wordpress.com/.

Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender is a creative nonfiction memoir that presents scenes from the life of a butch lesbian who went through a long coming-out process. This book is light-hearted and enjoyable to read, and provides an excellent illustration of life as a tomboy and the process of coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation after a period of denial. If you are familiar with her blog then you know that she has a pleasant writing style and sense of humor.

Theodore describes herself as being in between man and woman. It’s not easy to describe the feeling of being unlike other women but not a man either. She describes it in imagery and metaphors, sometimes lonely ones and sometimes cute ones. In one chapter she is a lost Cub Scout in a vast field. There are people to the west and the east, but no one else with her in the middle. In another chapter she imagines that at her mother’s baby shower, when the cake was cut open, it must not have revealed blue or pink cake, but instead rainbow.

She takes us to several scenes from her childhood where the difference between her and other girls was apparent, although she couldn’t name what the difference was at a young age. She paints a picture of the experiences that tomboys and butches go through as they navigate a heteronormative world, such as being mistaken for a boy or man in various social situations and being expected to like girly things and have crushes on boys despite being obviously not the type for it.

She is very good at choosing just the right simile or image to make her childhood experiences appear in full living colour. I found it very charming to read about life in the late 1970s. In some ways it wasn’t so different from my own. While she used to gaze at her Grease poster, presumably looking at John Travolta but secretly looking at Olivia Newton-John, I gazed upon my X-Files posters a couple of decades later, presumably looking at David Duchovny but secretly looking at Gillian Anderson.

Like any lesbian in deep denial, she attempted to date boys and was confused when she felt nothing for them. She described her first kiss like this:

“The kiss is like walking into a glass door. First, there is the impact and then the shock of it all. After it is over, I will inspect my body for marks and bruises. I thought I would fall into my first kiss in the same way I instinctively leaned into my first slide and ended up with a single spiked cleat resting on the second base bag. I stand motionless in the driveway while Dwayne Miller walks to his truck and drives away. I am frozen, rooted to the macadam. My house is only a few feet away, but it seems like miles. I know there is something wrong with me, but I don’t know what. I had gotten what I had wanted, but in the end I had wanted something else. I wonder if this is what love feels like. Or maybe this is what it feels like to be completely lost.”
(p83-84, first edition)

This is such a perfect description. She was expecting to enjoy the kiss but instead she felt like she had walked into a glass door and was left lost and confused. Compare this to the way she felt looking at a pretty girl:

“My attention is focused across the street at a girl in a tight pair of bluejeans. Her back is turned toward me, and my eyes have settled on the curves right below the point of her jean pockets. The pocket points function as makeshift arrows. ‘Look here,’ they seem to shout as if mounted to a billboard and outlined in blinking red lights. But the truth is I would have found my way there without any arrows or makers or maps.
It’s the fullness of the curves that has me captivated. She seems so full that she is on the verge of running over like a pitcher filled with too much liquid. I wait for something to spill out — perhaps a line from a song or a whispered secret—but it never does. Somehow, I know she holds the meaning of life, even though she is just a girl in a pair of jeans standing outside in the rain.
I know that I belong here paired with fleshy softness and ripeness and abundance that can be found on forever-rolling curves of lips and hips and breasts and cheeks. At the same time, I am lost because I don’t know how to get from here to there even though she’s just standing across the street.” (p95-96, first edition)

This description is luscious and wonderfully explanatory and it’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some things I love about this:

  • Although she described herself as “lost” after kissing a boy, when looking at a cute girl she felt she could find her way without a map. (Awwwww ♥)
  • She found existential meaning in her attraction to this girl and could only describe the feeling in poetry. (When wondering who it is you’re attracted to, take a close look at who inspires you to write poetry. If you find that the curve of someone’s body holds songs, secrets, and the meaning of life, that’s who you’re attracted to!)
  • The idea of knowing she belonged among women but didn’t know how to get there was so touching. That’s one of the things a lesbian will deal with when coming out. How to find other lesbians? How to approach a woman for the first time? This is one of the reasons why lesbian community is so important.

When she finally comes out of denial and admits to herself that she is a lesbian, it’s a very touching and beautiful realization. I won’t say how she realized it—you have to read the book! Then she realizes that she has always known, on some level. I remember that feeling too. After I got over the initial shock of realizing that I was attracted to women, I suddenly felt stupid, because I had always known it, I just didn’t want to know what I knew.

Luckily, Theodore is now a happily married lesbian living with her wife and feeling a lot more normal. Another lesbian success story!

This would be a good book for anyone who’s ever struggled to reconcile with her sexuality or who has had to navigate the world while being gender nonconforming. Although I have quoted from the first edition, I will note that the second edition is out now, with several new chapters added. Here is the information for purchasing the book.
Happy reading!

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Leaving Normal—Adventures in Gender

  1. Book recommendations are always a bit tricky I find but here are some of the books I’ve read recently which I thought were pretty good. I like historical fiction though, and quite a few of the books reflect that

    Golddigger by Hilary McCollum. It’s set partly in Ireland during the potato famine and partly in North America during the Californian gold rush. I really enjoyed that. The author’s working on another book set during the Suffragettes movement and I can’t wait for it.

    Pennance by Clare Ashton. I’ve also read That Certain Something (which I enjoyed) and After Mrs Hamilton (which wasn’t for me) by the same author.

    Club Storyville by Riley LaShae, which is set during the 1940s. I also read Behind The Green Curtain but I didn’t enjoy that one. I’m old and difficult though 😉

    Curious Wine and The Emergence of Green by Katherine V. Forrest were recommended to me by a couple of friends, and both books are pretty good.

    I’ve now read three books by Jae (Something in the Wine, Conflict of Interest and Backwards to Oregon) and while all three books have elements that slightly bother me, her writing is solid and her characters are well developed. She’s quite a prolific author so there might be something there for you.

    Like

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