By Marion Winik
Queer Rock Love tells the story of Paige and Katy, who fell in love and got married and had a baby, who became parents against the backdrop of serious illness, who formed a family and found a community in a world that was busily passing laws against its existence.
The author makes the wise choice not to do a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues—she just takes us into her story and her world, her evolution from being a straight-laced academic divorcee who suspects she is a lesbian to becoming the woman who finds her soulmate in the local rock star Katy, whose gender is complicated. We fall in love right along with her, no questions asked. She shows her own paranoia and prickliness about the straight world and its judgments alongside Katy’s innate, almost bullet-proof self-confidence. Katy just goes with whatever gender people seem to think she is, even if they change in midstream, suddenly deciding, no she’s not a sir, she’s a ma’am.
There’s a groundbreaking new novel out now called This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, about a straight family raising a genderqueer child (and making a lot of mistakes along the way.) Having read both books fairly close together, I am excited about the ways literature is doing its classic job of paving a path for tolerance and understanding. In another way, the book belongs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me because it also attempts to put the experience of otherness in context for one’s child. And of course this book shares much with The Argonauts, a wonderful cross between memoir and critical essay by the great Maggie Nelson, whose story is remarkably similar to Paige’s
I was holding my breath until the very last line of the book to find out what happened with Katy’s Hepatitis C. I had it too, and I was almost as sick as she was back in 2011, before the new drugs were approved: I was that person who couldn’t get off the couch to get my kid a glass of water because I had about 5 red blood cells. I didn’t have a partner to pick up the slack so thank God my daughter was 11 not 2—she could go out in the street and hitchhike to school if I couldn’t get up and take her. I was cured in 2012…Katy’s path took a few more years.
As strong as my identification with Katy were the pangs of recognition I had for Paige’s situation—being the partner of a very, very sick person amid raising children, trying not to be selfish and judgmental and unreasonable, trying to accept all the ways illness changes the person you love into someone you don’t quite recognize. Back in the 1990’s I was married to a man with AIDS, and having written a book about it, I remember all the challenges of describing this situation without yielding to self-pity or sentimentality, balancing the need to remain a likeable narrator while admitting to some weak, ugly thoughts and behavior.
Paige made a great choice to begin the book with Katy’s birth and her own, each in their particular quirky version of a Texas family. This establishes the relatability that keeps the reader right in her pocket through the whole story. Katy’s mother and Paige’s father are unforgettable supporting characters—I see them in the movie played by Connie Britton and Kevin Spacey. What a great scene when the whole crew comes together, along with about half the queer people in Austin, at the wedding.
There are so many different ways readers will connect to this book, each through their own history with gender, with parenting, with serious illness, with being a caretaker, with its Austin settings and characters, with academia, with vintage clothes. I bet Paige gets a lot of letters.
Longtime All Things Considered commentator (1991-2006) Marion Winik is the host of The Weekly Reader radio program and podcast. She reviews books for Newsday, People, Kirkus Review and other venues and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column appears monthly at BaltimoreFishbowl.com, and her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and The Sun. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. Visit marionwinik.com for more information.