“Life is twisted” is a favored exclamation from Liddy, a twenty-something dyke from Berkeley, California. Newly graduated from Cal with her Masters degree, Liddy has taken a contract to conduct research for a nationally known writer and finds herself trapped in the Iowa corn-belt for the summer. Her goal was to get away from the West Coast and an affair that ended very badly. She has no intention of getting romantically involved with anyone this summer. The women of Iowa City, which boasts, arguably, the highest concentration of dykes living in any town in the Midwest, have other plans for “fresh meat.” Even Liddy finds herself reconsidering her goals when she meets “Marian the Librarian.”
If you are a librarian living in the “River City,” Iowa and your name is Marian, you might as well surrender and embrace the humor of the musical. Marian Pardoo, on the Reference staff at the Iowa City Public Library, has done just that. Her dog answers to “Professor Hill” while her cat is dubbed “Trombone.” Marian enjoys her work and is pleased with life in semi-rural Iowa. However, she is nursing some major heartache. That pain sometimes makes her life very difficult.
Neither Liddy nor Marian is prepared for the chemistry that strikes when they meet. Their conflagration is wonderful, frightening, and more than a little confusing. Or as Liddy wonders, “Was she in a foreign movie with no subtitles? Or was this just the way the dykes dated in Iowa City? Yes, no, yes, no, talk, talk, and more talk?” (p112)
The two women struggle to overcome their fears of getting hurt by love again and find that sometimes communication is difficult. When Marian looks for a greeting card to express her feelings for Liddy, she finds, “There weren’t any cards that said, ‘Can we do it like rabbits and still be friends?’ Not one read, ‘Ignore what I’m saying and jump me, now!'” (p122)
Having a crush on a gym teacher is a fairly common element in the school years of most future dykes. In One Degree, Kallmaker pays tribute to what has to be a close second for many of the “nerdier” lesbians, that of the crush on a librarian. Or as she has Marian reflect of her decision, years ago to become a librarian, “It always seemed like whatever I could dream I could find at the library. And ever since I was a girl I thought librarians were the guardians of all the mysteries of time. It never occurred to me …. That I could be one of the guardians.” (p43)
Kallmaker’s romp through the lesbian community in a Midwestern College town is entertaining, sexy and touching. While One Degree is one of her most lighthearted novels, Kallmaker taps readers on the shoulder with a few well-placed political observations. She illustrates the realities of public library employment and points out a frightening aspect of our post-9/11 world, i.e., the Patriot Act and its assault on privacy and the free access to information.
One Degree is a delightful romantic comedy, filled with humor, lust, and lots of intelligent, interesting dykes. Kallmaker’s characters have a familiar feel and it’s easy to identify with them. They are individuals, yet likely to remind readers of women they know. As the novel opens, Marian is having a bad PMS day and she writes in her journal, “Someone will die if my period doesn’t start tomorrow.” (p1) When Marian self medicates with chocolate, it’s a sentiment with which most women can empathize.
The “square dance” of lesbians working together and loving each other in a small community will be a familiar theme in the lives of many readers. Kallmaker calls these dances with compassionate understanding, a taste for irony, and a deliciously wicked wit. Interestingly, she continues a dialog that has threaded its way through some of her other romances, as Liddy and Marian discuss definitions and nuances of the butch and femme “do-si-do.” One Degree of Separation is just plain fun to read. So get out your dance cards and enjoy the music!
MJ Lowe for the Midwest Review of Books
One Degree of Separation – Karin Kallmaker