Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Splendora

This entry begins a sub-group of Project 84 – books that have sat on my bookshelf forever that I never got around to reading. As part of the project, I wanted to make sure those books got covered, either as part of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die or as one of the “other” books. This first book is an “other” book, but only technically. If I were making a list of books to read, this one would definitely make it.

With that in mind, the 9th book of Project 84 is:

Splendora

Splendora
by Edward Swift

I start a lot of my reviews with the phrase “I didn’t know what to expect,” but usually I have some idea of the content. I know a plot summary, or a genre, or have read something else by the author, so any surprise I may experience is somewhat calculated. But when I picked Splendora up off my shelf, I truly didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

I couldn’t even remember where I picked up the book over the years. My hunch is that it was an impulse 1 cent book on Amazon when I was already ordering from a seller. It might have been a recommendation, but I’m not sure who would have recommended a book like this to me. Or it may have been on some list…

Regardless of where the book came from, one thing’s for sure: I loved it. 

The book takes place in the East Texas town of Splendora. The year is ambiguous (unless I really missed something). It reads like the 1950s, but could easily have been as early as the 20s or as late as 1978, when the book was published. Miss Jessie Gatewood arrives in Splendora in the hot summer to run the new “library on wheels”. The town quickly becomes enamored by her classic looks and put together appearance, and she catches the eye of the town preacher, Brother Leggett, who is harboring a few secrets. 

Miss Jessie is harboring a big secret of her own: she is actually Timothy Coleridge, born and raised in Splendora. He had escaped to New Orleans from the little town once he reached adulthood, and after a few dabbles in relationships with men, he took on the persona of Miss Jessie. Moving “back” to town with an unrecognizable new persona, Miss Jessie is confronted with nosy neighbors, ladies who want nothing more than to imitate her style, and issues from the past that Timothy has kept hidden. 

Splendora was a page turner, but it had a traditional form that suggested more than just plot brewing under the surface.  The narrative was just complicated enough to keep me engaged, but also thought-provoking enough to keep my brain going. The book is almost like a Shakesperean farce, but with a psychological component. A traditional cross-dressing farce (Twelfth Night, for instance) stems from a character needing to hide out from issues caused by external circumstances. The drama stems from the cross-dressing character’s fear of being “found out” and facing consequences. For example, someone is pursuing the character, the character puts on a disguise to hide in broad daylight, but the fear is always that their true identity will be discovered and they will be held accountable.

And Timothy was able to make a seamless transition from himself to Miss Jessie. As he puts it:
“How gradual the transition from one color to the other.” - Page 91
I think I was expecting this book to be an anthem for the transgender community. But, it really isn’t. I expected it to be about someone growing up biologically male, but feeling female inside. But, it really isn’t. I expected it to have shades of gender identity commentary, to get an idea of whether Swift feels that transitioning is nature or nurture. But, it really doesn’t.

Splendora is about coming to terms with being gay.  

Timothy is a gay man. But he has been taught in this 1950s (20s, 70s...) town that being gay is not acceptable. Even in New Orleans, which was far more accepting than Splendora, Timothy still didn't feel comfortable being himself. So, he became Miss Jessie. Timothy didn't want to be a woman, he didn't feel that he was a woman. Timothy was just so terrified of being himself that he had to find some way to hide from that self.

I feel passionately about this novel. Yes, I have been a gay rights advocate for years, so I come from a different place than many - but I thought this was such a beautiful way to approach the struggle. It uses traditional literary elements to address a topic that is not in any way traditional, and creates characters that are compelling, interesting, hilarious...and that you can't help but root for.

There is a specific line in the book that caused me to stop and think for a good 5 minutes before continuing reading. I wrote it down in a few places to make sure I didn't forget it, and knew it was important to share. It sums up the point of the book, and also addresses why I find it so emotionally compelling:
“I guess everyone wants to be someone else. Only for some of us it’s much easier to be someone else than who we really are, or at least we think it’s easier until we try.” - Page 229
Splendora might be my favorite book I've read so far in Project 84, and it was the book that most surprised me. It sat on my shelf for so long, and I’ve been kicking myself since I finished it for not reading it sooner. I recommend this book to anyone, and I’m shocked it wasn’t more successful. If you read any of the first 9 books of Project 84, read this book. It’s not the easiest book to find – but it’s for sale on Amazon Kindle, so that should be the most direct way to get it!

***

So, glowing review number 2 is behind us ;). I think I like it better when I’m able to talk about all the ways I loved a book, so maybe I’m more prone to enjoy them than not enjoy them. You know that I’ll be up front when I don’t like something – but it’s more fun to recommend than not to!

Next Review: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist Rachel Cohn and David Levithan



**I could not find an Amazon link for the version I read of this particular book, but all annotations refer to the first edition of Splendora, published by Viking Adult in 1978*

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