I gave up trying to choose an appropriate title for this post about The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton and about Sarton in general. After you read this post, maybe you can let me know which one you think is most appropriate. The contenders are:
- May Sarton is a goddess
- Want to read a book about opening a bookstore?
- If you don’t believe me just ask Rachel
- The best author you only kind of know about
- If you don’t try May Sarton we can’t be friends
- Your next favorite author with a long back list
- Cosy, literate, New England Lesbian seeks readers for mutual fulfillment
- You don’t have to be a Lesbian to love this Lesbian
I have said much on My Porch about how much I love May Sarton. I waxed so rhapsodic about The Magnificent Spinster that I convinced Rachel at Book Snob to give her ago. And Rachel, as it turns out, loved it.
Still not convinced? Try this on for size: sixty year old Harriet whose wife of 30 years passes away and leaves her a legacy. With the money she decides to open a women’s bookshop. Harriet knows she is going to lose money at least for the first few years, but she opens it because she wants a place where women from all walks of life can gather and meet each other. This is not only a fun topic for those of us who love books and bookstores, but, having been published in 1989 it hearkens back to the day when opening a bookstore didn’t seem as crazy as it does now. Although Sarton is silent on the matter, this was a time when the Barnes and Noble juggernaut was steaming its way across the country. Remember how worried we were about independent booksellers back then? We were right to be, the big boxes certainly did their damage to the little guys. But now those days seem positively golden compared to the e-book and Amazon nightmare we are now embroiled in.
Upping the nostalgia factor, Harriet opens a women’s bookstore like the kind so perfectly satirized on the TV show Portlandia (see video below). For me this conjures up my early college years when Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For followed a group of women whose lives were often centered around Madwimmin Books. Incidentally, when I was in college in the late 1980s the women’s bookstore in Minneapolis was actually called Amazon Books believe it or not. It was a wonderful shop, wonderfully located across the street from an urban park in the heart of the city which was also the heart of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival very June. These were the days when my roommate Becky and her girlfriend Kristi bought me a button that read “Honorary Lesbian”. (I used to always comment to them on how I preferred the Lesbian personal ads over the gay men’s ads.)
Okay, back to Sarton’s book: with her dog as companion, the recently widowed Harriet opens her bookstore in the a diverse blue-collar neighborhood of Boston. She meets wonderful people and she is confronted by a animus from a less than understanding neighborhood that thinks she is peddling smut and providing a safe haven for homos. She is also forced to confront her grief over the loss of Vicky and her own identity. That is, having spent 30 years in a Lesbian relationship but being old fashioned enough to never have really thought of herself as Lesbian.
Sarton’s novel also shows how much the LGBTQ landscape has changed since 1989 (in fact, in 1989 the BTQ’s existed but weren’t really part of the discussion in the way they are today).
I loved, loved, loved this book. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it so made be want to know Harriet and her customers and to sit for a while in one of the comfy chairs in her store.
Other posts about May Sarton
How I discovered her and a review of her journal Plant Dreaming Deep
My review of The Magnificent Spinster
My review of he sad and wonderful As We Are Now
And just in case you are wondering what else she has written (from Wikipedia):
For extra fun, check out this clip from Portlandia.