Born into shame and illegitimacy during World War II and raised by an adoptive mother who took every opportunity to crush her spirit, the heroine of this novel, Molly Bolt, knows what she wants from an early age: to never marry, to get an education, to make movies, and to sleep with women. Rubyfruit Jungle follows her journey from bigoted poverty in rural Pennsylvania and Florida, through numerous setbacks, to her eventual graduation from university in New York.
Objectively, this is in many respects a depressing story, and could have been a depressing novel. To have turned it into something bright and strong and determined is an achievement that rests largely on the character of the narrator, whose internal monologue forms the bulk of the book. Molly Bolt is my kind of lady, sailing through her hardships with an outspoken contempt for anyone who tries to tell her she doesn’t deserve what she wants, or to impose on her a morality that is at odds with her own. The author also lightens the novel’s tone by sprinkling in a series of comical sexual encounters, such as the man who pays Molly $100 to pelt his naked body with grapefruits.
That’s not to say Molly’s journey is without tears; being a lesbian in small-town America in the 1950s and ’60s brings frustrations that might have felled a lesser being. Apart from the more obvious obstacles of dealing with sexists and homophobes, one of the biggest blows is the death of Molly’s adoptive father, the only person in the novel who accepts her completely as she is. Molly is devastated by his loss; in a passage that ties together both the tone of the book and several of its themes, she deals with the immediate aftermath of the death with her mother, Carrie, and grandmother, Florence.
The ambulance men came in and looked at me curiously in my robe. Made no difference to them that my father had died. I was another piece of sixteen-year-old ass in a bathrobe. The doctor told me to put Carrie on tranquilizers she was so whacked out…There was no use trying to get back to sleep, so Florence and I stayed up the whole night and discussed funeral arrangements. Florence was looking at me with the searching eye, waiting for me to falter or cry. If I’d cried, she would have told me to pull myself together for Carrie’s sake. Since I didn’t cry, she accused me of being heartless and not truly loving Carl because he wasn’t my natural father. She upbraided me for being adopted and how adopted kids got no true feelings for their parents. I was wordless. I had nothing to say to that woman. Let her think what she damn well pleased. People like that, I don’t give a shit what they think.
I loved this novel and its heroine, with her sass and wisecracks and blistering intelligence. On meeting her cousin’s wife: “She had her hair in a teased beehive and her makeup preceded her in the room by three inches”. On the films made by the male students in her class: “Pornoviolence was in this year and all the men were busy shooting bizarre fuck scenes with cuts of pigs beating up people at the Chicago convention spliced between the sexual encounters.” Evidently one criticism that has been leveled at the book is that it treats the more butch women that Molly encounters with some contempt, and I think that’s a legitimate view, though I thought it was intended more as a criticism of the labels imposed on women by New York’s gay culture in the ’60s, which Molly found reductive and reacted to with mockery. (As a straight lady who hasn’t so much as worn trousers in years, I should point out that my opinion on that question of interpretation isn’t worth very much.) It’s a fairly minor aspect of the whole, but it could be problematic for some readers.
Eventually, the novel returns Molly to her two childhood homes for a series of scenes that combine frustration with poignancy, her friends having followed conventional paths seemingly out of an inability to imagine anything better for themselves, and her mother demonstrating a predictably selective memory about the way she treated her daughter.
Carrie, Carrie whose politics are to the right of Genghis Khan. Who believes that if the good Lord wanted us to live together he’d have made us all one color. Who believes a woman is only as good as the man she’s with. And I love her. Even when I hated her, I loved her. Maybe all kids love their mothers, and she’s the only mother I’ve ever known. Or maybe underneath her crabshell of prejudice and fear there’s a human being that’s loving. I don’t know but either way I love her.
Trigger warnings: emotional abuse, general sexism, racism, and homophobia.