1940’s San Francisco – Correction. Queer, magical, 1940’s San Francisco.
This is where we find the women who will get caught up in a romance that leads them from small, intimate dinners, to the nightclubs of Chinatown, to an island dedicated to an almost magical World’s Fair.
Passing Strange begins with a mystery in the present, as an elderly Helen Young, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, sells the long lost final painting of pulp fiction artist Haskel to a bewildered pawn shop owner.
We’re immediately taken back to 1940, where young Helen is on her way to a dinner party. There, she and five other women, including the artist Haskel and a young woman new to their friend group, Emily, debate the possibility of the existence and magic. They also discuss the tricks to staying safe as a queer woman in a time that despises their existence. More than one of the women have curbed suspicion by marrying men, some who are gay themselves.
Over the course of the book we follow the six women, Haskel and Emily most closely, as they live, work, and play in the queer subculture of San Francisco. And when an old flame returns to threaten a new romance, the women must band together to protect their own.
This little novella was wonderful from start to finish. Klages makes queer San Francisco of the 1940’s come alive in a way that makes it feel more like a fond memory than a historic setting. And this is especially impressive since I have never been to San Francisco, and was definitely not alive in the 40’s.
Emily and Haskel’s romance gets off to a running start, but then settles in to a lovely, if stereotypical, domestic cadence. It fits well with the types of people they are. Both artists, living in a community that is both loudly and visibly present in places like the club they frequent but also must keep hidden out in the mainstream world, a quick romance makes sense for them.
The magic in this book is especially interesting to me. There isn’t much to-do made of it, beyond a few characters being surprised at it’s existence when they are exposed to it for the first time. It’s a low hum in the background, rarely used except in desperate need (or when you’re running late to a dinner party). It blends well into the rest of the story.
The conclusion of the book I wont spoil, but I will say that I found it both romantic and fitting. Overall I very much enjoyed this book. So much so that while I read a copy from my local library, I intend to buy a copy for my personal colection.
All of the protagonists in this novel, and nearly all of the secondary characters, are queer in some way or another. Most of the protagonists are lesbians, though Haskel describes herself in a way that leads me to believe she is bisexual.
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