Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

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David Sun, along with many of his peers—wealthy, constantly internet-connected, often drunk high school students—calmly watched, via webcam, as one of their fellows committed suicide. This worries his parents and the school shrink. His parents are too busy to actually, y’know, parent, so when the school shrink suggests that they invest in the latest gadget designed to help “disassociated” teenage boys learn to form health relationships, they go right ahead and buy their son a hot female robot. Er, “companion.” She comes with a built in Intimacy Clock; he only gets to snog the hot female robot after a designated amount of healthy social non-sexual bonding. If he tries to jump the gun, he gets an electric shock. Basically, they’re trying to use the promise of robot-nookie to train teenage boys to behave better. It’s a completely half-baked, insulting-to-women idea… and, therefore, frightening plausible.

Anyway, when David can’t get what he wants from his personal hot female robot—Rose—she ends up turning to Charlie, a lonely, depressed social misfit with abandonment issues. She helps him get some confidence and sense of companionship; he helps her gain some independence and a sense of personhood. (She’s a very advanced robot. (Incidentally, she’s significantly more advanced, emotionally and mentally, than the other companions we come across in the novel. This is noted but never explained.))

The novel is largely a meditation on the suckiness of breakups, and at that it succeeds pretty marvelously. The characters’ pain is palpable, but the plot moves along at a good clip and protects it from descending into melodrama. Rose tends to be over the top, but in a believable way; she’s learning how to be human, how to have feelings, how to think—there’s some trial and error, and it feels natural for her to overdo it.

It’s also an uncomfortable book. The male culture David inhabits is, without recognizing it, extremely sexist. Women, even those who aren’t robotic, are reduced to bodies, and even their bodies are reduced to, well, their girl parts. In groups, if girls are present, they’re mostly there to be witnesses to the supposed coolness of the guys—and the girls know it. And, of course, the book raises all sorts of sex issuess: are the companions just objects and no more need to consent than does a vibrator, or are they feeling beings? If they’re feeling beings, are they capable of giving informed consent, or are they like children and animals? For that matter, are the boys able to give informed consent? Are the parents participating in their sons’ sex lives by purchasing their bots? If a bot experiences the desire to kiss her assigned boy but the Intimacy Clock prevents it, is she being denied her sexual agency by her makers or by her body?

The actual writing about sex is mixed; the scenes of female masturbation and of awkward, not-very-good sex are very well done, but the scene of supposedly mind-blowing sex is painfully corny and overwritten.

Overall, though, it’s an interesting idea-driven book with a strong emotional core.

August 2010.

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Girl Parts ~ John M. Cusick

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa book coverIn this graphic novel, Ehwa lives with her mother, a single parent and tavern-keeper, in a rural Korean town in an unspecified era. Over the course of the book—the first in a trilogy—Ehwa goes through puberty, slowly learning about sex, sexuality and relationships. Her education is fitful; she picks up bits and pieces from her peers, from adults’ overheard conversations, and from observing her mother develop a relationship with a traveling salesman.

The text is a bit too precious. Ehwa is both ignorant unaware of her own body, to the extent that she thinks, at age 7, that she’s deformed because two boys tell her that everyone has a penis. In contrast, she is unrealistically aware of emotions. At thirteen, she’s saying, “A few times, I’ve picked tiger lilies and left them on this bridge in case he comes by… but every time I check I see that the flowers are still here, wilted and dried up. Like Mom with her gourd flower, I left the tiger lilies here as a sign for him. But it looks like only the butterflies noticed.”¹ A little too sweet and a little to aware— of her own emotions and the emotions behind her mother’s actions— it doesn’t feel realistic. She’s incredibly conscious of herself, but without the self-consciousness that paralyzes many teenage girls. More believable, and more interesting, are the dirty, not-quite-good-natured teasing of Ehwa’s mother’s customers at the tavern and the similarly half-in-good-fun and half-mean clashes between Ehwa and her contemporaries.

The art is gorgeous and takes equal billing with the text: both propel the story. The text tries a little too hard to be poignant; the art succeeds effortlessly. The simple black-and-white drawings somehow manages to convey complex facial expression and portray Ehwa’s development and her continuing but changing curiosity and concern about her body. It’s worth it just for the art.

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¹ P. 114-115

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The Color of Earth