As we all wait in breathless anticipation of Shameless publisher Stacey May Fowles‘ new book, Be Good (launching tomorrow, details in the post below this one), I though I’d tip you off about another kick-ass book I’ve been reading.
Bottle Rocket Hearts, by Shameless contributor Zoe Whittall, was released in the spring, but it took autumn’s chill to remind me that it was time to start snuggling up with good books again.
I just reviewed Zoe’s book for eyeweekly.com, but because it’s so shamelessly awesome, I wanted to post my review here too. And so, without further ado…
Zoe Whittall knows what it’s like to get kicked in the lip ring by love. Her first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant Books, 189 pages, $19.95), is a queer coming-of-age story that captures the rush of falling in love and subsequent crash of realizing your lover is more fucked-up than you are.
Eve is a few days shy of her 19th birthday when we meet her, infatuated with an older woman but still living at home with parents who don’t know she’s gay. As she leaves their home in Dorval for an apartment in downtown Montreal, she enters a world of feminist activism, open relationships and drugs poached from dead people’s medicine cabinets, soundtracked by Team Dresch and Le Tigre.
Set around the time of the 1995 referendum, the book sizzles with heightened political awareness and urgency. Walls are tagged with “oui” and “non,” biker bombs explode in the night and the riot grrrl movement has jumped the shark. The political becomes personal as Eve is torn between her separatist girlfriend and Anglo friends and a hate crime hits close to home.
In the eyes of Whittall, a Toronto resident who hails from la belle province, Montreal is an “angry ice cube,” characterized as much by its cold snaps as its political strife. (“It’s February, so we take fun where we can get it,” she writes. “It’s in low supply, like serotonin and good hash; whereas PCP and depression, Montreal has in spades.”)
Whittall populates the city with characters so vivid and in-your-face that you might write them off as caricatures if they didn’t so closely resemble folks you’ve met before. There’s Della, the butch lesbian artist who knows every other lesbian in town, with tattooed sleeves and “boy beater” scrawled across her white undershirt. There’s XXXX, Della’s ex-girlfriend, whose real name is “too evil to write or say aloud.” And then there are Eve’s roommates: Rachel, the brainy grad student who works at the women’s centre; Seven, who’s trying to erase his short-term memory through “a strict regime of drugs, sex and debauchery”; and their cat, Gertrude Stein.
Written in diary format, Bottle Rocket Hearts chronicles two years of Eve’s life, as she struggles to figure out who she is, what she believes in and how to reconcile the two. Whittall’s writing is evocative, youthful and raw, and some parts of the book may cause you to flinch in recognition of past (or present) selves. This is a treatise on jealousy as much as on growing up, and Whittall nails the frustration of realizing that your personal politics don’t mesh with your emotions. (As Eve tries to navigate her rules-free Revolutionary Relationship with Della, she notes, “Intellectually, non-monogamy made sense; emotionally, it felt like sandpaper across my eyelids.”)
At a time when bookstores have entire aisles devoted to the hot-pink dreck known as “chick lit,” it’s refreshing to encounter a well-crafted, kick-ass grrrl protagonist like Eve. Her transformation from a naïve 18-year-old in baby barrettes to a hardened-but-hopeful 20-year-old is bittersweet and compelling. And when Eve wishes her heart would hurry up and become a bottle rocket like everyone else’s (“common, sturdy but still potentially explosive”), it kind of makes you wonder when that happened to your own.