Well I finally got around to reading Rubyfruit Jungle towards the end of last semester. I’ve possessed a copy for a long while, maybe a few years or 10 (plus), which I bought on the basis of Julie Walter’s character in Educating Rita. I liked Walter’s character so my thinking was that maybe I would like the book, the fact that it was about a lesbian may make it even more appealling. However, the book never quite reached the top of my To Read pile. A number of reasons were the cause of this. The main reason, however, was that on a quick dip in here and there it didn’t quite appeal to me. I wasn’t sure I could relate to it, this being an American lesbian tale, and I’m not American. Also, the story is set in the late 60s and early 70s. Now, not that I am against anything set in this time period, but from my personal 70s vantage point of a rural English primary school 60s/70s America is something of an alien landscape. My idea of 70s America was derived from the cross Atlantic TV that found its way to our house in the form of Columbo, Ironside and the Waltons – not quite the sort of TV that featured lesbians, token or otherwise.
The story is a lesbian coming-of-age novel about Molly Bolt, the adopted daughter of Carl and Carrie. I am tempted to call it a coming out story, however, Molly doesn’t really come out and she doesn’t have any major amounts of angst or soul searching about her sexuality. No, Molly is just queer right from the get go. Molly experiments with sex with another girl when in the 6th grade and then again when in high school. This lesbian sex is interspersed with sex with her cousin Leroy. Molly excels at school and achieves a scholarship to go to university where she becomes involved with her roommate. When their relationship is discovered she loses the scholarship and so cannot complete her studies. Molly then leaves Florida for New York where she works her way through film school. Along the way Molly’s relationship with her adoptive parents is examined. Molly has a good relationship with her father, who dies while she is in high school, however she has a tumultuous relationship with her adoptive mother, who she calls Carrie. Interestingly when she returns home to film her final piece of work for her film studies course, which is focused entirely on Carrie, Molly seems to achieve something of a peace with her adoptive parent.
So, how did the book get to the top of the pile and finally read? Well, it was a matter of association, I had just bought Why be happy when you can be normal by Jeanette Winterson which made me think about Oranges are not the only fruit, and of course fruit led to Rubyfruit Jungle – and I thought, let’s get to it and see what it’s like. Having read it I wish it hadn’t, ok so it wasn’t that bad, I just didn’t like it. The writing isn’t that great, I found the style of writing very simplistic and, I suppose compared to some of the non-academic stuff I do read it is. The book also reads very much like a rose tinted fictionalised account of how Brown would have liked her life to have been, particularly when you examine the parrallels between the fictional Molly and and the experiences of Brown.
The book is often hailled as classic lesbian fiction and in many respects it is an interesting account of its historical time and place. Take gender roles and expectations as example, in the late 60s and early 70s generally women stayed home and kept house and if they had to go out of the house to work it was mainly in lower status work they they were employed. And whilst times were changing, young women were expected to follow suit. Yes, we see Molly head off to university, however many of her contemporaries at school did stay home and raise families, take Molly’s first love Leota. With respect to it being classic lesbian fiction, well it is a classic because there are not that many lesbian works out there and it was one of the first to explicitly portray lesbianism, however that is about it.
Overall, it really did nothing for me. And no, even from the vantage point of the 21st century and a bit of an education behind me, I still couldn’t relate to it.