While I loved the setting and nods to historical places, figures, and events, I found myself unable to love the main character Joe. I really wanted to, but when her backstory wasn’t even explained until after the third chapter I was lost for what her motivations were. Her expression of emotions were so subtle that I felt they were reaching for hidden depths that just didn’t exist. The multiple plots did a fair amount of twisting but the primary “blackmail” plot is easily guessed halfway through. If the intention is to be more noir than mystery then I suppose that is a good thing. I did miss the classic noir staple of the femme fatale, though there was a femme, there was nothing fatale about her. She served more as a light love interest, a quick pg rated love scene that left me uninterested, and more often a therapist. Not to mention taking a knock at stone butch women by flat out insulting them (which when recounted to others, consensus was that the line in that scene comes off as more “I like to rape women” than “I convince stone butches to let me have sex with them”).
What did I really like? The character of Pearl, who was fun and interesting, deep and thoughtful, and ruthless when necessary. She carried the show, even assisting with what I assume is the authors desire to discuss non binary gendered thinking, which for the time period seems unlikely of most characters. Pearl managed to pull even that off. I liked several of the blackmailed characters, who were intense and their pain reached off the page, their stories struck nerves that made my heart ache. I liked the storyline of Joes brother, though it was simple and not difficult to figure out, it was realistic, well written, thoughtful and at times raw. It took time to get to the real meat of this plot line, but it was worth it. The brother sister connection and details of their relationship were told so vividly I felt as if I was in the forest there with them.
With so much research accomplished by the author from the extensive acknowledgements and bibliography, I am left confused how a book that seeks to encapsulate gay and lesbian life from 1950’s San Francisco can consciously make so many historically inaccurate choices. Was it the authors wish to see the time through rose colored glasses? Was she inserting herself as the character of Joe, who switches between butch and femme with no qualms about how that would actually be received in the lesbian community of Joe’s time? This is what I was left with when the book was over, but reading about the historical references along with the offered photos help calm my internal storm. In the end I give it a solid 3 stars.