This is an interesting look at attitudes towards samesex relationships in another century. It is a work of fiction, but no doubt is a story that could very well have happened. Life was hard for women in general in this time, and for lesbians, would have been even harder. You gained your status based on what male you were connected tofather, husband. If you had neither, you had no husband and were of marrying age, you had nothing, no right to vote or sign legal agreements. Barr points out the difficulties while giving us a story full of lovable and redeemable characters. An outstanding book by an outstanding author. This book so surprised me. It is historical fiction that deals beautifully with a lesbian relationship. I learned from the historical setting and times described in the writing but I ended up admiring the love between these two women. I came away thinking, "Heck, love is love!" and I am a straight female. For sure, the plot is believable. Another bonus is it totally surprises the reader in some spots. Every once in a while I will pick up a book that I know nothing about, and these books have the chance to surprise me or cause me to stop reading halfway through. To be honest, this book was something completely different from what I usually read. I think the thing that forced my hand was the title, and that it was the only lesbian book my elibrary had. So without knowing much more than that, I picked it up (figuratively of course).
The main plot of Bittersweet is the struggles of two very different American women in the 19th century. It shows the struggles they and all other women faced at this time when the West was a new frontier. The story starts in Philadelphia and slowly works its way out west, past Reno, Nevada. Ultimately the two women struggle to find a place they can live in peace. Imogene is the older, giant of a woman, who is a school teacher. She is being forced out of town because her relationship with one of her female students was discovered. With the help of her old school master, she finds a placement further out west in a mining town. As quietly as possible, she tries to settle in and keep to herself, and hide out from the brother of her former lover who will take any opportunity to ruin her life.
In the new town is a young girl, Sarah, who is immediately drawn to Imogene. But Sarah has obligations to her family. Soon after Sarah graduates, she finds that instead of furthering her education, she is to marry a friend of the family (a man who does not believe women have any need to be educated). While the marriage is not happy, and causes a stronger bond between the two women, Sarah is thrilled to have a son. However, the happiness cannot last (remember the title of the book?).
The brother from Imogene’s former lover sends a letter informing the town why she had to leave her previous post. Just when people start to believe Imogene’s side of the story, an angry former pupil lies and claims that Sarah and Imogene had committed the same acts. Knowing there will be no way to salvage the situation, Imogene packs the despondent Sarah up and they flee out west. The story continues to follow them as Sarah slowly recovers and starts to become aware of her own feelings. Imogene must continue to look out for the woman she loves. They find brief periods of happiness, but must always be aware that one slip up means that they will have to flee even further.
Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the book. In fact, I did find it hard to put down. However, it is not a book with one climax, but instead the plot rises and falls with each new challenge the women face. It almost becomes a bit repetitive, and I did find myself getting a little angry with the characters for making the same mistakes over and over. But ultimately, I was cheering for them, especially Imogene. I feel that even though I did not like the times when they were being forced to flee, this made the brief moments of peace even more beautiful. At times I was very much reminded of The Children’s Hour (the play/movie), where even lies can ruin lives, especially if there is kernel of truth buried in them. Even in the happiest moments of the book, there is a tension because they are always so close to losing everything. But the quiet moments that the women are able to spend together show the readers why it is worth fighting for.
That being said, there are several drawbacks to this novel. One would be the overall predictability of the story. But I think Barr does a good job keeping things interesting. However, parts of the dialogue feel a bit anachronistic or mixed. Overall, the characters try speaking in a more old fashioned way, but certain phrases seem to break that image, and it almost feels as if it would have been better to just stick to modern language. There are also several glaring editing slips, ones that one would not expect in a published book.
Overall, I am glad that I read the novel. Unless you are a fan of historical dramas or looking for a bittersweet lesbian story, however, I would not recommend it to you. So this is a middle of the road novel.
Final Verdict: Smooth Sailingonly read if it fits one of your interest areas, but don’t expect to be blown away.
I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, exactly. Although I don’t regret reading it either. But I do feel as if I've been put through the ringer a bit.
Mystery writer Nevada Barr’s foray into historical fiction is so convincing in its depiction of the hardships of the Old West, I could practically feel my skin leathering in the relentless desert sun and taste the dust rising off the stagecoach trail. It tells the story of Imogene Grelznik, a "spinster" schoolteacher forced by a scandal [involving a female student] to leave her lifelong home in Philadelphia and move to the untamed West in order to start over anonymously. Like many contemporary LGBT novelists, Barr has a bit of an axe to grind with modern society and the weakest aspect of the story is when she attempts to force Twentieth Century stereotypes onto people of the Nineteenth Century. For example, the autocratic father who insists on keeping a thoroughbred horse that costs the family money they don’t have, even though he hardly ever rides it. The passage is a thinly veiled version of the modern day redneck with his beloved vintage muscle car. Or the promiscuous best friend of Sarah, Imogene’s star pupil, gloating while her bohunk boyfriend gets to second base on a very public hayride. These episodes, among others, simply don't ring true and detract from the authentic atmosphere the author has otherwise successfully conjured.
But that all comes to an abrupt halt in the third and final section of the story. When yet another scandal forces Imogene and young Sarah to move to a remote stage coach stop in the Nevada desert, the book really comes to life. Every aspect of the hardscrabble life they livefrom the parched, silty landscape and sulphuric taste of the drinking water to the subterfuge necessary for two women running a business without a man, is brought startingly to life. Barr spares the reader nothing. And if you think two lesbians had it bad in the Old West, wait until you see what the animals had to endure.
I’ll grant, this book is only for the stout of heart. If you’re looking for a classic love story with a neat little happy ending, give this one a wide berth. Each time the reader thinks Imogene has settled into a comfortable, workaday existence, something catastrophic happens forcing her to remake her life from scratch. This character is nothing if not resourceful. So, for any openmind readers with an interest in the Old West, fans of historical LGBT fiction or maybe even folks who enjoyed "Albert Nobbs," this might be the one for you.
Three and half stars. This is a hard book to rate, because while the storytelling was at best mediocre, I found the story itself engrossing. I've never read Nevada Barr before but have learned that she usually writes a series of mysteries. I confess that I'm not tempted to pick up anything else by her, but, to her credit, she did a great job choosing her topic in her attempt with Bittersweet to write historical fiction. Based on "women's diaries", according to the book jacket, this story describes the lives of two women living in 19th Century Americaone is a strong, fiercely independent schoolteacher, who is also a lesbian when there were no lesbiansor not acknowledged. The other is a younger, painfully shy woman who knows only the submissive, barefootandpregnant (and also required to do a lot of backbreaking work) role that women of the time were assigned. They fall in love and commit to one another in a society that will allow no such thing. Barr's writing is slow at first, but the story carried me along and she did manage to make these two women real, although it took awhile. The sacrifices they make and the pain they endure, as well as Barr's unpolished style, made for difficult reading at times, but I would say that this novel is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in gender roles and the everyday, unknown women on whose shoulders we all now stand so tall as to bang on the glass ceiling and with relative, growing freedom explore and be whoever we are.
The back copy of Nevada Barr’s Bittersweet promised me a truthful, accurate portrayal of two women living together in the 1800s West. Imogene, a spinster teacher, is forced from her job in the East when her secret affair with a female student is revealed. She ends up in small Pennsylvania farming town, where she starts a friendship with Sarah Mary. However, malicious gossip eventually finds her again, and Imogene and Sarah are chased out to Nevada, where they try to start again.
The book is equally Imogene and Sarah’s stories, which I found difficult. Imogene is older, more experienced, and to me, much more interesting. She is described as exceedingly tall and strong for a woman so not only is she old, single, overeducated, but she also physically embodies the characteristics of spinsterhood. Barr is not an explicit writer – the queerness of Imogene’s character is implied more than it is spelled out. I wanted more of her, her inner feelings and struggles, than I got.
Sarah, on the other hand, is introduced as a child. When she reaches around 15, she is married to a local neighbor. Her life is difficult and hard; she is immature in both age and experience. Her friendship with Imogene, I think, has more to do with Imogene’s loneliness than with a lot of commonality of character. It takes Sarah quite a long time, in both page numbers and in plot, to become an interesting character. Most of the time, I felt that Sarah was just a victim for Imogene to protect, not a true partner.
Without being too spoilery, here is Sarah trying to decide her future:
She squeezed her eyes shut and willed the words to heaven. When she opened them she was alone and small under the ring of mountains, the little grave at her feet. ”If not, Lord, I’m going to cast my lot with love.” The defiance returned and she added, “Half a year. I’ll listen half a year.” (198).
I think Bittersweet runs a bit slow and overly long, but Nevada Barr is a gifted writer. The Old West comes alive, without cliche, in her writing. Where Barr succeeds is in telling the lives of women– mothers, daughters, wives, and spinsters. I found it fascinating and interesting, even when the story slowed down. I wish I had found the time to review this when it was still fresh with me, but maybe it is better like this. To start off, I can safely say that this book or rather this audiobook stayed with me for quite awhile.
The whole story starts really slow with long graceful descriptions. In the course of the detailed account, I felt I got to know the two women (schoolteacher Imogene Grelznik and her student Sarah) really well. Imogene left her former post, because of a romantic relationship with a female student. She's a branded woman, hurt and hardened. Yet Sarah wiggles herself into Imogene's heart, even though she doesn't know what her own feelings mean. Then Sarah's father marries her off to an unfeeling man and Imogene's past somehow closes in on both women. They have to flee.
What starts off as a close friendship, becomes more. But first wounds need to heal, feelings need to be acknowledged and strength needs to grow.
This book contains so much grief, but also so much love. I soared and loved spending my time with the two women. Yet, the terrible feeling of social repression throughout the book together with Sarah's feeling that she was doing wrong in loving Imogene did depress me.
I so hoped for a happy ending and it was happy, if not what I wished for both women in my heart.
I got this book for fifty cents at a chich book sale and what a buy. The story is about 2 women in the who travel from PA out to Nevada when it is first being settled. The relationship beween them builds and you get to care very deepl about their lives They fcae down so much hate and sadness but in the end, despite the title being very true, you are left savoring the sweetness of this book. I was sad when in the author bio I saw this was her first nonmystery novel but then when I saw it was published in 1984, I was excited to know that there are many ore books by this great author to read.
I talked about this book so much while I was reading it that my husband, not a big reader a all, picked it up and is now engrossed in it too.