To the large group of lesbian friends residing in late 1990s Portland, “bisexual was the earnest white girl in your women’s studies class who had a nice boyfriend and wanted to clock in a little more oppression.” This is a problem for Andrea Morales, the heroine of Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel “Stray City,” because although Andrea identifies as a lesbian, she is pregnant. The result is heartwarming and sweet in a '90s grunge style, but Johnson doesn’t quite deliver the thought-provoking novel “Stray City” could have been.
The synopsis claims that Andrea’s pregnancy is a result of a post-breakup drunken rebound, implying that a one night stand is Andrea’s only sexual interaction with a man. However, the truth is that Andrea begins a nearly year-long love affair with Ryan Coates after she gets drunk to cope with her breakup, after which she gets pregnant. It takes 300 pages to properly build up and break down this relationship, leaving only 100 for Johnson to bring the child, Lucia, into the story 10 years later.
This digression from the promised plot is disappointing not for lack of interest or a hope for more focus on the mother-daughter narrative, but rather for what the novel could have been. By focusing on Andrea and Ryan’s relationship, Johnson has posited the opportunity to explore how the Portland lesbian community reacts to a lesbian sleeping with a man. Besides a few scenes that take place once the affair is made public, one in which a friend tells her to leave the community because there are “plenty of actual lesbians to carry on the...work,” there is not much by way of community reaction. Although Andrea’s lesbian support group is wary of girls who claim to be bisexual and are vehemently outraged at Andrea’s “betrayal” of her sexuality, the narrative skips over the process of acceptance. While it could have thoughtfully delved into the perceptions of sexuality and inquired about sexuality as a spectrum, “Stray City” doesn’t stray too far into this topic.
Even with this misleading synopsis, Johnson provides a heart-warming story that will, at the very least, drag up nostalgia for the 1990s. The characters are “scrappy girls in a borrowed room, [with] old couches, graffiti on the walls, a pile of snacks to scavenge, trading information and gossip as the air thickened with smoke.” They listen to everything from Nirvana to small local grunge bands, read magazines written by and about lesbians, go to bars, have lesbian art shows in abandoned buildings and sing ’90s songs on karaoke. A punk vibe resonates throughout the narrative that categorizes 1990s Portland all too well.
The most poignant part of the novel is saved for last, as Andrea spends the last 50 pages deciding how to explain her past to her daughter. Refreshingly, it is not Andrea’s same-sex attraction that confuses Lucia. Andrea’s relationship with another woman is natural to her daughter. But Andrea still has to explain why Lucia’s father isn’t around. Here, the deadbeat father narrative is twisted from its usual form into something different. [How could Ryan stick around if Andrea doesn’t even love him, or men at all? Does this fact, and Andrea’s claim that she doesn’t need his help, justify Ryan’s disappearance? It’s these question that pervade the entirety of the novel’s finale. This question takes a look at a family that is anything but nuclear, in today’s world there is a necessity for novels that inspect families that diverge from the heterosexual norm
An interesting spin on a single-parent narrative, “Stray City” explores some topics while leaving other timely ones high and dry. However, authors shouldn’t necessarily imbue their novels with political agendas just for the sake of it, and it’s okay if they don’t. In the end, Johnson provides a tale about finding oneself and one’s family in a setting that calls up memories of a cooler time.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @caroline_tew.