“A writer like Caldwell doesn’t need to follow elementary rules. Fanciful language would only distract from her narrator’s candor, one of the book’s greatest assets.”
Chloe Caldwell’s slim and sensual new novella, Women, defies labels. It is not merely a love story, or a story of sexual awakening, or a coming out story, but a story about two women wrecking each other’s lives during an illicit whirlwind romance. This is Caldwell’s second book, a follow-up to her essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray (2012), and I was happy to discover the prose carried her characteristic bite from nonfiction to fiction. Women is described as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” and Caldwell has stated in interviews that the book is based heavily on her first relationship with a woman. Even without that disclaimer, avid Caldwell readers would not have trouble identifying traces of Caldwell’s idiosyncrasies in the nameless narrator. The novella opens with the narrator describing Finn, a lesbian nineteen years her senior, and after revealing that their meager yet intense relationship has already fallen apart, the narrator notes, “Isn’t it sad to talk about ex-lovers in the past tense as though they are dead?”
You might think a small-press autobiographical novella called Women that features one transgender man and texts with one cisgender man would find its way into the hands of only so many people. In the case of Chloe Caldwell’s book, this has not been true. Perhaps because the story interacts with the reader, with The Narrator exposing her own fears, obsessions, and insecurities as we follow along.
“The story is powerful, hot and will have you thinking 2015 is the year of the lesbian. Plus, Blue is the Warmest Color showed America just how hot erotic lesbian novels can be on screen.”
“The book situates itself firmly in the precedent of queer women’s fiction; hardly a few pages go by without a reference to Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson, or, in one case, The L Word. Caldwell uses these as tethers for her own book, and earns a spot for herself among those she references. She brings to the page such an urgency that it is impossible not to be swept up, to remember what it was like when we ourselves were so engulfed by another person that when we emerged, we had to struggle to find ourselves again. Women is a skillfully and engrossingly written novella, a small slice of overwhelming love and heartbreak, and the search for belonging and self. Caldwell proves herself as a writer to watch in the coming years.”
“Chloe Caldwell’s work is known for its vulnerability with her collection of essays Legs Get Led Astray. In Women we witness the narrator’s recklessness, like when she throws her phone into the street with Finn on the line, or when she snorts coke that a date from OK Cupid gave her, but we could also argue that it was the inclination towards recklessness and vulnerability that gave our narrator the possibility to explore this relationship and an identity that she hadn’t considered before. It’s reckless vulnerability that enables Women to take place.”
“Anyone who has suffered through apologetic fictionalized memoirs where the narrator spends every other page reminding you that she is 1) ashamed 2) confused 3) conflicted about the things that she is sharing with the reader will race through this nimble novella like a child gunning for the stairs.”
“Nothing’s sexier than first love and first intimacies, and Caldwell’s brave autobiographical tale twists the trope into a powerful story about unexpectedly falling in love with a woman and the discoveries, sexual and otherwise, that ensue.”
“What is refreshing about Women is its storytelling through the female gaze, and how this informs our questioning and resolution of identity. Women doesn’t profess to be a feminist novella, and I didn’t notice this distinction until I meditated on why the book feels so different from classic coming-of-age fiction and memoir.”
“The keen eye and attention to detail made the book difficult to put down, and demanded that I read it in one sitting while also calling me to slow down and focus on the dust. Some of Caldwell’s many strengths are in how she shows the intricacies, and dependencies, of relationships through an unflinching, unapologetic, and straightforward narrative.”
“The book is infused with savvy, dark humor, including a hilarious bout on OK Cupid. Women at a queer dance party dress like characters from Brokeback Mountain; at a postbreak up coffee date, neither the narrator nor Finn will take off their sunglasses. Hearts are broken, but Caldwell takes care of us. It’s hard not to fall in love with this taut little book.”
“What I love about Caldwell’s writing is how it is satisfyingly disquieting in its relation to my own life. Selfishly, I wanted more. Not necessarily a tidier resolution — because how is life ever like that? — but I devoured the book in one sitting. I desired more exploration of these complicated feelings and the way we sabotage ourselves. The first time I ever fell in love, I didn’t know it until she had already broken my heart. Women had me thinking about that and how first heartbreaks stick with us.”
Women, which is written in memoir style but is actually a work of fiction, is intimate and engaging from the first paragraph: The author explains that her pupils are expanding, which is either “a symptom of falling in love or a side effect of the Chinese herbs my transgender friend Nathan was hooking me up with.” Perhaps it’s the episodic structure and conversational tone that makes this 131-page novella easy to read in one sitting — or maybe it’s just that good.
“Caldwell has a directness and clarity in writing about herself that works really well, and the casual brushstrokes of her surroundings in a small, unnamed liberal city are precise. The transgender best friend, the coffee shop, the bars and library and house-sitting for wealthier friends serve to let the reader in rather than locking us out, harder to do than it appears to be.”
“Women is a tiny novella, slim in page count and in circumference. You can, and should, read it in one sitting, so that it feels like stumbling across a friends diary. It is packed with juicy details about the nameless narrator’s relationships with the women in her life.”
LEGS GET LED ASTRAY
For the reader, going astray means getting happily lost in the prose of Caldwell’s daring, compelling, and graceful debut.
-Publisher’s Weekly: Read the complete review here
Legs Get Led Astray swells with a bruised innocence and self-indulgence reminiscent of two great story collections that preceded it, Susan Minot’s Lust and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. Like theirs, Caldwell’s is a contemporary slice of sex and struggle.
-Bitch Magazine (Print: Buy it here)
By exuberantly embracing her life, Caldwell invites the reader inside her emotions, experiences, memories, and reflections. She encourages the reader to enter her body. Her writing is a celebration of life, not a dissection. That difference is a relief. Caldwell lives without apology. It makes her collection stand apart from those that might be read as more traditional coming-of-age stories.
-The Collagist: Read the complete review here
Caldwell’s grasp on her own past, her ability to remove the lens of hindsight that sometimes fogs non-fiction makes this collection one of the best I’ve read this year.
The essays in this collection are as exuberant as they are sad. Her storytelling is as vulnerable as it is bombastic. These essays roll in gangsta, but wear freshly picked daisies in their hair.
Ultimately, it’s not Caldwell’s specific experiences that generate this resonance in us, it’s her precision of observing herself that allow us to turn the same microscope on ourselves. The same might be said of all effective memoir.
-Metroland: Read the complete review here
Legs Get Led Astray is daring, funny, occasionally brilliant, and, above all, eminently readable.
–The Faster Times: Read the complete review here
An essayist whose work has appeared on The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus, Caldwell’s nonfiction reads like the bucket lists of a rebellious early-twenties indie darling. She writes about heroin hangovers and attending orgies. She’s frank about her sexual exploits and masturbation tendencies. She captures an essence of trying to find her identity in an oasis of young bodies doing the same, testing mortality and making enough money for cheap rent and bodega Zebra cakes. Call it the haphazard lifestyle diet.
-Sabra Embury, The L Magazine: Read the complete review here
A sort of “autobiography as mixtape,” Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray is a slim, 157-page book of personal essays that are brooding with sex and longing and repetition. It’s also full of music, with B-sides like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Wilco, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos, and Okkervil River, whose lyrics in “Last Love Song For Now” are where Caldwell‘s title comes from.
“This collection is hot and unpredictable: filled with the kind of energy that makes everyone envious. Attitude and presumption and wit.”
-Ringside Review: Read the complete review here
“Her personal essays in Legs Get Led Astray lie in the same vein of feeling so intensely that it spills like filled rain gauges into your hands. She writes of so many normal things—lovers, brothers, children, camp, carrots, sex. But it is transporting; it is poetry. It is repetitions of magics in what happens to everyone, secrets that are so intensely and specifically personal that they are all of ours.”
-The Juvenilia: Read the complete review here.
“There’s a density to the ways in which Chloe feels things.When the part of her that reads diaries she’s not supposed to read and writes diaries she can’t help but write meets the part of her that is reaching for truth beyond feeling, the results are deadly.”
-PANK Magazine: Read the complete review here.
“Annoyed as I was at times by how enamored Caldwell is with her own edginess, I was equally compelled by the way she relentlessly ferrets out the truths of her relationships.”
-The Portland Mercury: Read the complete review here.
“Caldwell examines her relationships while she’s still in the throes of them. Her essays talk about lovers, yes, but also about close friends, her parents, children she has cared for, and more than one instance of the Strand bookstore. Years of retrospect do not factor in here much — her feelings are still raw and maybe a little jumbled and maybe a little closer to the direct noise inside anyone’s brain. Her heart swells and stretches, contracts and fractures, and her honesty is refreshing.”
-Persephone Magazine: Read the complete review here.
Word Riot Interview 2012