Willa & Hesper

Grand Central Publishing  2019

 

In Amy Feltman’s debut novel, a pair of young women meet in the cauldron of a creative writing workshop at Columbia University, where their intense focus on creativity, words, and life facilitates their intimate relationship. They fall in love, break up, and take separate journeys to heal.

Told through alternating points of view, Willa & Hesper captures the contemporary political moment in a variety of ways. One plotline relates to the #MeToo movement and the book gains momentum in the shadow of the election of Donald Trump. While rooted in the contemporary world, the story simultaneously explores resonances with the past, particularly how family histories of forced migration continue to reverberate with younger generations.

Willa & Hesper is in the tradition of other novels with lesbian protagonists such as Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sarah Schulman’s The Sophie Horowitz Story, Elana Dykewomon’s Riverfinger Women, and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Willa & Hesper, however, departs from these earlier lesbian novels, which focused on coming out, by presenting the protagonists’ relationship as quite usual. Drama emerges not from their friction with the outside world as a result of homophobia and heterosexism, but from their own complex reactions to the end of their relationship and to their searches for meaning and connection.

Willa’s reflections on Judaism, woven throughout the book, provide a portrait of a young woman yearning for an anchor in Jewish life. At one point, she looks at an Orthodox couple on the train and wonders if seeing them is a call for her to be more observant and explore a life more rooted in Jewish religion and practice. These desires contrast with her parents’ rejection of religion. While Willa’s reflections are intriguing and provocative, they are not fully realized in the development of her character or the larger plot.

The scope and ambition of Willa & Hesper, combining stories of a family from Tbilsi, Georgia with a story of Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland, are exciting. The framework mobilized by Feltman provides ample space for character and plot development. Unfortunately, while the two women at the center of the novel seem very different, their voices and perspectives never differentiate enough from one another. Nevertheless, Willa & Hesper is a pleasurable novel, and Feltman is a writer worth watching as her work develops.



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