Sarah Ettritch's new novel is one of those stories that sneaks up on you, snuggles in close, and seduces you into reading just a few more pages before you put it down. The words flow so easily and so sweetly on the page that you're halfway through it before you realise the house is quiet, the news is muted on TV, and everybody else has long since gone to bed.
This is lesbian romance at its finest, with characters who are so wonderfully alive that you can't help but fall in love with them from the very first page. Rarely do I come across a character who so completely, so instantaneously, and so effortlessly makes such a lasting connection with me as I found myself enjoying with Maddy. She's honest and genuine, both a loving friend and a friendly lover. Even though she's involved in a May-December romance with Lillian, their love never feels cliched or tenuous.
The Salbine Sisters themselves are a psudeo-religious Order of sorceresses. Organized in a convent-like setting, these women are 'called' to the service of Salbine, and come to learn the art of 'drawing' the elements as part of their faith. Many of the women are lesbians, but this is neither remarkable nor a point of controversy - the joining of two women as concubines is just as special, just as much a cause for celebration, and just as common-place as the joining of a man and woman in marriage. As such, Sarah is free to explore the love of Maddy and Lillian without having to deal with feelings of angst or anxiety regarding their sexual orientation.
In terms of storyline, this is a simple novel, but a powerful one - and one where, upon reflection, it's easy to discern the deeper meaning so subtly woven into the plot.
While her sexuality does not make her an outsider, the fact that Maddy is 'malflowed' - attempting to draw the elements causes her crippling pain - does. Lost, confused, and questioning her place, she begs the Abbess for permission to travel to another Order to research the journals of another (long-deceased) malflowed sister. Along the way, a lack of understanding about her condition causes others to misunderstand her, to judge her wrongly, and to imprison her simply for being who she is.
It's at this point that the simple romance becomes a far more complex drama of love and courage. Without giving away the key turning points of the story, Maddy suffers both emotionally and physically for the misunderstandings of others, but she remains true to herself through it all, finding a renewed purpose in the care of a young girl, abandoned by her mother, and cruelly imprisoned as a thief. Again, I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's a safe bet that love (and Lillian) will truly conquer all.
As much as I enjoed this novel, the ending bothered me at first. I felt like there was no resolution to Maddy's quest to understand being malflowed . . . no tidy explanation of how and why she came to be that way. It was then, of course, that the pieces came together and the deeper meaning emerged. Quite cleverly, Sarah uses Maddy to explore what it means to be an outsider, even as she fools us with a world where that quality which should make Maddy an obvious outsider - her sexual orientation - is embraced and accepted.
There's no resolution because, ultimately, it's no more important to understand why Maddy is malflowed than than it is to understand how she came be a lesbian. Instead, the story is about simply accepting that which makes us different, recognizing what is truly important, and in learning how to live happily ever after. It's an interesting way of making the reader ask those very same questions, even as we enjoy the ride of a thoroughly rewarding love story.
Absolutely 100% recommended . . . this was a lovely read.