Just finished Trio by Dorothy Baker. Her other, Cassandra At The Wedding, just devastated me last year. Why, you ask? Second (perhaps) to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, I would call it is the best book on female-to-female relationships I’ve ever read. In Ferrante’s books the two lead characters are best friends, in Baker’s book the two girls are twin sisters, but the themes, quite the same. They both explore the strange landscape of female relationships and their effect on identity.
Baker asks, how do twins feel when they start out exactly alike, only to grow more and more different, and farther and farther apart? What if one of those twins wants to stay closer than the other, what if one is conventional and the other, unconventional in their paths? What then? Ferrante starts, not with twins, but with two whose identities have the same point of origin. They both explore what it might mean for women so close as to be the mirrored, and so different as to be alien. That rollercoaster of need, blinding at times, for a woman to be close to another woman, so that the conflation of their respective identities might act as proof- of individual worth, desirability, purpose and sometimes, of one’s own sanity. How shakey is it otherwise. But also the shock, located in that closeness, that no matter the aping, no matter the point of origin, no one will ever know you completely, or be like you, or understand you. Then the rage, repulsion, and antagonism that comes with the fallout.
I was in love with the whole thing, Cassandra’s brilliant, vitriolic voice, Judith’s placid sweetness, how Baker builds the characters but keeps so many cards close as well. The author melted form ( which I won’t spoil for you) and content so very fine indeed. I would press it upon any smart person I knew (imagining a few dolts who wouldn’t be able to appreciate Cassandra’s acerbic wit or even, god forbid, a story told from not one, but two women’s perspectives). If I hadn’t lent my copy to a friend, I might be reading it a second time right now.
Which brings me to Trio. Now obviously as soon as I finished Cassandra At the Wedding I needed to have everything Dorothy Baker had written. NYRB had republished Cassandra at The Wedding and another Young Man With A Horn, both out of print. I could find two other books she’d written, Our Gifted Son and Trio, also both long out of print. Got a copy of Trio sent from England, picking that title because of its controversy. Baker and her husband had conceived of it as a play, and the nature of the subject matter, a love triangle between a girl, her older lesbian lover and her boyfriend, has caused riots at performances. I’d also read it was thought of as a ‘pulp’ novel and I wanted to know why. Because it was considered lascivious at the time of its publication in 1943? Or was it the way it had been written, or marketed? This New Yorker article was illuminating, after the fact. I think it was just considered pulp because it was marketed as such. In Trio, the three characters work in various ways to gain power over the others. Having read her later Cassandra At the Wedding, I could see her working out her treatment of power, uncontrollable emotions, vitriol.
Then I must address this. Some have said Trio is homophobic. It certainly isn’t generous to the ‘homosexual lifestyle’, the consequences of which wound everyone involved. And yet, I wouldn’t exactly call it homophobic. As the reader meets the characters at the end of the central relationship, an end which is violent, any early joys of the relationship are barely revealed it at all. What we are treated to is the kind of brutalizing power dynamic that happens at the end of some relationships: blame, anger, adultery, disgust. The central relationship in Trio is characterized by abuses- idol worship and manipulation- rather than love or equality, which, because it is a lesbian relationship under the microscope, seems homophobic.If you imagine love, homosexual, heterosexual or other for that matter, to be delivered on an even plane, then yes, Trio, is rather harsh. The male character is disgusted by what the women have been doing (and he finds it corrupting to some extent) but it isn’t so much the physical but the emotional corruption he is disgusted: the manipulation of teacher over student, elder over youth, sophisticate over naif, cunning over fragile, and woman over girl. If the author’s illustration of the destructive nature of the relationship hinged on it being a homosexual one, then yes, I would considerTrio, and by extension Baker, homophobic. But I have a problem calling it that for two reasons. First, the book is not a-historic. It was written in 1943 at a time when homosexuality was not accepted, and its perimeters salaciously defined. Literature can uplift, emulate or disregard ‘realism’, but Trio is no more, or less real, no more or less homophobic, than life at that time. For the era, Trio is almost progressive. But more importantly, what is most ripe is the misogyny at play, illustrated by the fear and self-loathing battled by both female characters. The women are not free to be lesbians, not because homosexuality is wrong, but because it corrupts the primacy of male desire. The young female character is ‘used up’, the older female character a destroyer of marriages and other hetero-normative relationships. As the world opens to these women, they are exposed for their fragility, for their desires, for their otherness, and while they do themselves no favours, it is men who finally take them down. This theme is picked up as a thread and examined with more elan and sophistication in Cassandra At the Wedding, with much more satisfying results.