A World Between
(The Feminist Press, 2020)
Over the 400 plus pages of Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel, we witness more than a decade in the friendship between two women. In 2004, Eleanor Suzuki sees Leena Shah in an elevator in their college dorm. For Eleanor, it’s love at first sight (or at least young lust); Leena isn’t so sure. From that moment, we see the development of their friendship, intense love affair, its collapse, and later coincidental meetings that complicate both their lives. Eleanor is messy: emotionally and physically, a somewhat directionless Women’s Studies major, a self-described “queer biracial Asian Jewish girl” with “the power and privilege to help people.” Leena is tidy and already has a life plan: she’s pre-med, planning to study abroad in South Africa, and become a doctor. They come from different backgrounds: Leena from a somewhat traditional Indian background with family expectations of university, career, marriage, and children. Eleanor’s family is more open: a Jewish mother who worked as a nurse during the height of the AIDS crisis in 1980s San Francisco and is accepting of her daughter’s sexuality; a Japanese father who is removed but loving, his family survivors of internment. Eleanor sees her mother as overly attentive and loving, too interested in her life, perhaps too understanding. Leena loves her parents but believes she must keep her relationships with women secret.
I’ve never been much of a fan of romance novels or novels about relatively privileged young people making their way in the big city, but this is a coming of age romance novel with some compelling twists. This is a queer multi-racial love story and both women come from complex family histories. These elements shift the novel beyond genre to explore elements that held my interest through the lengthy novel. There are some false notes: Eleanor is a self-proclaimed queer feminist who oddly enjoys watching straight romances like When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). There are repeated references to “feminist music”—defined mostly by women folk singers, which seems incredibly out of character for two young women in college in the Northeast in 2004 (Wouldn’t they more likely be listening to Bikini Kill?), and then there are all the feminist textual signposts: Eleanor diving in to Audre Lorde in college, quoting Adrienne Rich, but oddly not reading bell hooks until one hungover post-breakup binge years later. And then there’s the sex: the one straight(ish) sex scene is awkwardly written, the love scenes between Eleanor and Leena and Eleanor and her other lovers are almost too detailed (again, I don’t much like romance fiction) but likely will be compelling for some readers.
The novel is split up into four parts alternating between Eleanor and Leena’s points of view. Starting in 2004, we see Eleanor’s side of her tumultuous relationship with Leena in college. In Part Two, it’s 2010 and Leena is visiting her boyfriend (soon to be fiancé) Dhaval in San Francisco. By chance she bumps into Eleanor who is working for a non-profit and has inexplicably become a bit of a lush (after being very seriously straight-edge in college). Eleanor is in a relationship with a difficult woman, Leena is busy convincing herself she’s in love with Dhaval. While Dhaval is at work, Eleanor and Leena spend a few drunken days together, much to Dhaval’s consternation and Leena’s confusion. For Leena, Dhaval is not only a good, kind (and incredibly wealthy and handsome) man but also part of her life plan. For Leena, women are confusing and “a threat to her path.” When Eleanor invites Leena out to a gay bar, Leena ends up making out with a woman and when confronted, Leena responds “sexuality is fluid,” Eleanor’s response, “Ugh, gross.” It’s difficult to like Eleanor in moments like this.
The sharp judgements and pressure on Leena to choose between a “straight” life with Dhaval (whom she loves) or a gay life with Eleanor (whom she loves) is the heart of the conflict of the novel. It’s hard not to sympathize with Leena when Eleanor’s jealous girlfriend Nasrin publicly outs Leena in front of Dhaval. Nasrin’s jealousy and need to out Leena risks Leena’s happiness, her relationship with her family, and also Nasrin’s own relationship with Eleanor. It all does become a bit melodramatic but Leena is written with such skill that we want to know what happens. Part Three shifts back to Eleanor in 2010, she and Leena are roommates in New York City but all is not well. Dhaval is back in San Francisco, Nasrin is gone but when Leena’s grandmother becomes ill, she returns to the family home and Eleanor’s life falls apart, again. She listens to some Joni Mitchell and finally reads the bell hooks her professor gave her. While Eleanor’s search for self and “self-love” is a major theme in the book, it’s somehow less compelling than her concern for her own Japanese grandmother, her desire to be closer to her own complex family history—both Jewish and Japanese.
In the final section of the novel, we see Leena in 2017 single and living at home after the death of her beloved grandmother. She’s on her way to attend a wedding in Boston. The groom, Tomas, is a mutual friend so it’s no surprise when Leena sees Eleanor again. Unbelievably, she bumps into Eleanor in an elevator at the hotel signaling their first meeting several years before. The tension is still there, and the attraction, but both she and Eleanor are different people now. The wedding is lavish and romantic (and the second wedding in the novel) and the champagne flows. But despite expectations, the novel provides a twist at the end that again shifts it out of genre and into something stronger and more transcendent.