Saturday, August 13, 2022

REVIEW: Passing Strange (novella) by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange is a lesbian historical fantasy novella. I bought my copy brand new.


The back of the book says this is the story of six women, but in reality only three of them are very prominent. The story begins at the end: Helen Young has received bad news from her doctor and knows she doesn't have long. It's time for her to keep a promise she made decades ago, so she retrieves a very special pastel painting from its hiding spot and prepares to sell it.

The story jumps back in time to San Francisco in 1940. Loretta Haskel is an artist who paints pulp magazine covers in order to pay her bills. She's married, but her husband left ages ago and she's perfectly happy without him. She found her place in the city's LGBT community and a circle of supportive friends (which includes Helen, who's also her lawyer).

One evening Helen and Haskel go to Mona's, a lesbian bar, and Haskel finds herself entranced by a singer called "Spike"...who happens to be a young woman she recently met, named Emily. Emily is in need of a place to stay, and Haskel has room.

The beginning of their relationship is the focus of much of this novella, and readers gradually learn how Haskel's final painting came to be, and why Helen kept it safe for decades only to sell it to a man she found distasteful.

This is one of those cases where I fell in love with the cover before anything else. The first part of this novella, set in the present, intrigued me, as did Franny's little display of magic at the start of the flashback. I admit, I expected (and would have preferred) there to be more fantasy in this. Instead, it turned out to primarily be historical fiction. 

Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm not very familiar with lesbian history in general, much less what it was like in San Francisco in 1940, so I learned a few things. I had no idea about the three-garment rule, for example. And Helen's experiences as an Asian American added another layer - although she was a lawyer, being Asian American limited her job opportunities, so she helped pay her bills with dancing. Although, based on some of the wording in the first part of the story, it sounded like Helen eventually got to focus on law more - I recall a bit mentioning she'd been a judge.

While watching things develop between Haskel and Emily was nice, and the author's depiction of lesbian artist/entertainer life in 1940 San Francisco was fascinating (art lovers may enjoy Diego Rivera's cameo and Frida Kahlo's brief mentions), I did start to wonder where things were going. Then things fell dramatically apart. I had a guess as to how Klages was going to bring Haskel's final painting in, and, surprisingly, I turned out to be correct.

Overall, I found the ending to be both neat and satisfying, as long as I didn't think too much about how Haskel and Emily had really only just met.

Kudos to Tor (and the cover artist, Gregory Machess) for pairing this novella up with absolutely perfect cover art.

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