Queer book review! All reviews touch on genre/pot, tropes (if any), and quality of gay content, and include both spoiler and spoiler-lite versions. Catch up on my last book review of Eleanor and Hick by Susan Quinn.
Today’s book review is sponsored by my very good friend that I’ve had for ten years!!! Thank you Tara!!!! I also have a few disclaimers before I dig into the review.
Full disclosure: I spent more than half my time being very confused while reading this book. In part because I stupidly did not realize that the narrator is in fact the author who is in fact a character in the story. Sounds confusing, right? Well if only I’d remembered the author’s name, I would’ve made the connection a lot quicker.
Secondly, the book was also just very dense. The plot was thick with a lot of things going on, jumping from three different settings (only one of which even took place on planet Earth), jumping narrators, lots of literary devices, etc. My last literary read was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and this novel made that read feel like a child’s book. In conclusion, I need to read this book again.
The Female Man is a sci-fi novel in the 70s about three women, Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna. The narrator—most of the time—is Joanna, who literally is the author characterized in the novel as a 1970s feminist. Jeannine is a wannabe housewife from the Great Depression era. Janet is a woman from some foreign planet that has no men (rejoice!). There is also another J character, but I’m going to leave her out of the discussion because I think she’s kind of a plot twist.
The theme is first and foremost FEMINISM! secondary to sci-fi and lesbianism. The plot is honestly unclear until at least halfway through the novel. I thought it was about the three women navigating each other’s cultures and womanhood with Joanna lowkey being annoyed with everyone, but after a few plot twists, it was more about an entirely different universe (?). (I included the “?” because that’s still debatable.) (But the navigating womanhood thing is definitely a theme.)
Also note that this novel “breaks the fourth wall” a LOT. The narrator talks to you directly at times and talks to the book and about the book. So, if you’re not into that, I’m not sure how receptive you’ll be of that. To be fair, I usually hate this device, but I genuinely really loved it in this book. It really added to the humor. Also, this book is fucking hilarious.
So, the book does have some canon lesbians (Janet, obviously, because she is from a planet with no men). The narration also addresses lesbianism at certain points and does not shy away from using the L word—a lovely thing to see for a book published in 1975. Russ herself was an out lesbian, so it’s not shocking to see lesbian themes and discussion in the book after filing that factoid in the brain.
Janet—the lesbian—is married to a woman on her home planet and also pursues a sexual relationship with a woman on Earth. As far as I could tell, the novel never made a deal out of adultery or this even being considered a concept for Janet’s culture. There are other characters that are worth a queering lens, but that’s up to reader interpretation. I’ll say a little bit more about this in the spoiler section.
The “gay content” plays background to the feminism themes, although at times they go hand-in-hand. The book never shies away from lesbianism, apart from a few places, but the plot and characterization justify this slight avoidance in the text. (More detail in spoiler section.) Overall, I was very pleased by the content for this older novel and excited to have some gays in the sci-fi genre.
The big spoiler is that this book made me feel a bit dumb. My literary reading skills—as it has been proven, thanks Joanna—are definitely out of practice. It leads me to wanting to reread this story because I know I’m smart enough for this.
The actual spoiler is that by the end of the book, the reader gets a sense that all the Js (all four of them) are variations of Joanna (the author) herself. This means that Janet, Joanna, Jeannine, and mysterious extra J character all contain a version of a lesbian identity, as Joanna (the author) herself was an out lesbian. This makes complete sense for the characterization of Jeannine, as her backstory and life screamed “closeted lesbian” to me. She resembled a younger, in-denial and oblivious version of myself who had not realized her lesbian identity yet. Passages about Jeannine were both cringey and powerful for this reason alone. And for any lesbian, I think these moments will be very obvious. The book never states Jeannine is a lesbian, but this jumped out right away before I even realized Joanna was Joanna the author, or before the novel revealed that all women are a variation of the same person.
All in all, would read again just to understand everything that happened.
Coming Up Next
My next book review will be for Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice by April Sinclair. This book is a sequel to Coffee Will Make You Black, so don’t miss out on that review. Have you read The Female Man? What did you think? Let me know by commenting below!