At 15, Cathy Quinn is an intelligent misfit living in 1980s Dublin. As the book opens she discovers that her charming older brother Stevie, who’s gay, is falling in love with the one boy in school whom she likes. Over her last two years of school, Cathy struggles with her dysfunctional family, coming to terms with her powerful attraction to her best friend Jeanette, and leaving Ireland. The Leaving is a realistic, yet lyrical, look at adolescence and first love.
Ms. West recently contacted me with interest in reviewing my book, “Are You Sitting Down?.” I just happened to click on the link in her email signature and discovered her book, “The Leaving.” The description above immediately had my full attention, so I offered to trade reviews with Ms. West by reading her book. And I’m so glad I did.
It’s not often that I have the privilege of reading such truth and sadness in a novel like “The Leaving.” I’m not easily entertained by books that are often labeled “gay fiction.” Though some of my favorite authors who have written similar books may focus on gay characters or gay storylines, I wouldn’t even label “The Leaving” in such a manner. I would, however, put Ms. West in the same high regard with which I favor authors like Andrew Holleran, Paul Russell, David Leavitt, and we musn’t forget the brilliant Patricia Nell Warren.
In “The Leaving,” Cathy is a young teenager just a few years away from taking her final tests (nicknamed The Leaving which quickly becomes a metaphor for Cathy’s life) to complete high school. She’s at that odd age and time where identity for a teen is everything. She’s book smart, a bit heavy, doesn’t like to wear make-up, and has just taken an interest in boys through a small crush she has on a classmate named Ron.
Unfortunately for her, Ron is gay and is more interested in Cathy’s brother, Stevie. The book starts with Cathy living out her crush vicariously through Stevie’s relationship with Ron. At times, the writing is sad but through Cathy, West tells a heartfelt poignant story that will take you back to your own high school teenage awkwardness right away, reminding us that it is an uncomfortable place to be. But Cathy does not require the reader’s sympathy:
Stevie was saying I thought more than he did. That was true. I did think about things, and as a result I was continually depressed. I was a confirmed pessimist, and rather proud of it.
The story moves along as Cathy forms friendships with girls in her class, particularly a girl named Susie. However, Susie is coming into her own sexual awareness and despite trying to set up double dates with boys and Cathy, which Cathy finds too distressing, Cathy clings to Susie for the mere friendship Susie can provide and which Cathy desperately needs and covets, like in this scene:
As the Inter approached, she began to sit with another girl for lunch. I sat with them, although I sensed that Susie didn’t want me to. I had no one else to sit with. I felt rather desperate. What would I do when she dropped me? How could I get through two more years of school without Susie? It wasn’t, I thought to myself, that she really meant anything to me, just as I didn’t to her. But she was my mainstay. I still needed her.
In fact, throughout most of the book Cathy suffers that intrusion she bestows upon others, desperately clinging to friendships and eager to explore her sexuality despite here social ineptness. When she befriends a new outcast in school named Jeanette, it seems that Cathy has finally gained a best friend until the routine of “flowering girl gone boy crazy” falls upon Jeanette. When a bit of drunken intimacy happens between Cathy and Jeanette, Cathy accepts the fact that an sexual relationship with a man or a woman may not be her forte.
Cathy’s home life with her parents is fragile, but Stevie suffers from the anger of their father more so than Cathy. After his Leaving, Stevie’s sexuality and identity blossoms, and we still see Cathy clinging to the details of her brother’s social life for lack of her own:
It was inevitable that thoughts of Stevie and Ron would creep into my list of fantasies. I added them to my list of couples. I fictionalized their relationship, but as Stevie became less real to me the interactions that I conjured up between the two boys took on an authentic quality. I would have been surprised had I been told that they said different things to each other when alone, were less tender.
At times, I was reminded of Leavitt’s Lost Language of Cranes where we see a father forced to deal with his own closeted feelings towards men when he becomes enamored by his son Philip’s coming out. And West’s prose are just as haunting as Leavitt’s. At times Cathy only briefly tells us what she is feeling inside; the rest comes to fruition as Cathy paints a lone picture of the events of her teenage life, showing it to the reader but hiding the details of how she really feels underneath the vivid colors of the drama.
The cast of characters here at times reminded me of those from The Glass Menagerie written by playwright Tennessee Williams. They are stubborn and tragic, but upon revealing themselves on such a high emotional level, we can’t help but embrace them and find slivers of our own past in the storms that befall them. We relate to them. I certainly did to Cathy, finding myself at times in a room full of people but feeling so alone in the world. Like Williams, West still clings to the magic although her characters might have given up. Like in this line from Cathy:
I had often wondered whether people’s eyes could actually shine, or look sympathetic or loving, or whether it was a trick of the light.
The writing is simple, but at times, that is what we need as a reader. West has given you the bare essence of a story and left it unconvoluted with trite details that often clutter a page. She’s even left her protagonist exposed at times, bare and naked, alone and angry at the world, but unable to change it.
By the time I had reached the end, I could have probably spent another 100 pages with Cathy as she reaches for yet another journey after high school with another new and interesting, but tragic, acquaintance. But like Cathy says in this quote, all journeys do have an end:
Pushing the darkness and the suffering away, Jeanette was able to burn with a brightness which certainly attracted me. I circled around her, getting closer and closer to the center. That was the exciting part. But what would I find when I reached the core, where the heat should radiate most intensely? All I knew when I was Jeanette’s friend was that I was on a journey, and that, like most journeys, it would end. I felt pretty confident that it would end well, which is a dry way of saying that I was sure sooner or later we would come together, merge in some way, as lovers perhaps, but even if not we would be forever inseparable. It was a romantic notion, yes; I simply could not imagine anything ever dividing us.
And I cannot imagine my life now without having experienced this beautiful novel. Despite the plea in all of us to grow up, wishing our young lives away unbeknownst to what awaits us, I promise you will not want the journey The Leaving takes you on to ever end.