By – January 28, 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.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions

Strong char­ac­ter devel­op­ment awaits the read­er in Amy Feltman’s debut fic­tion nov­el, Willa and Hes­per. Felt­man focus­es on the two young wom­ens’ lives after their whirl­wind romance falls apart. Seek­ing refuge by con­nect­ing with their past, Hes­per vis­its Tbil­isi, Geor­gia with her fam­i­ly to learn about her grandfather’s past, while Willa joins a Jew­ish sur­vivor trip to Ger­many and Poland. Feltman’s intel­li­gent treat­ment of sen­si­tive issues deals with les­bian rela­tion­ships, the long term effects of being assault­ed, and the emo­tion­al tur­moil of heart­break. Willa and Hes­per is an explo­ration of the iden­ti­ty of one’s past while under­stand­ing how to live in the present.

Feltman’s skill­ful writ­ing cap­tures an emo­tion­al jour­ney of self accep­tance for both women and makes this debut nov­el a wor­thy read.