Author Elana Dykewomon has been acclaimed for writing about lesbian lives and realities largely unacknowledged by the mainstream. Her last novel, the Lambda Award-winning Beyond the Pale, vividly portrayed New York’s turn-of-the-century East Side and the challenges facing women loving women at a time and in an environment rife with injustice, anti-Semitism, racism, and tragedies large and small.
In her latest novel, Risk, Dykewomon chooses a different setting altogether in which to explore the lives of lesbians and their struggles to create community and relationships against the backdrop of a wider culture that is homophobic, sexist, and filled with so many other institutionalized inequities. In this book, her characters make their homes the city of Oakland, California and their story unfolds over the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and into the early years of the twenty-first century. While lacking the epic sweep and historical drama of Beyond the Pale, Risk captures the flavor of a particular place and time, giving us the everyday concerns of her characters with an authorial consciousness of the larger canvas on which their lives are being painted.
The book’s main character, Carol Schwartz, is the daughter of a man killed in Vietnam, and his death, when she was still a child, has left a profound mark upon her life. Carol’s mother, on the other hand, remained a solid and influential presence for Carol into her adulthood. Swept up in the feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies after her husband’s death, Carol’s mother shares many of her daughter’s values. Nevertheless, their different generational experiences create a distance between the two.
When we first encounter Carol—a self-identified femme—she is five years out of UC-Berkeley, underemployed, and single. Within short order, however, her circumstances change when she meets Z.D., the intriguing butch after whom Carol lusts from the moment she sees her. Making her desire for Z.D. clear from the very start is one of the many risks we see Carol take over the course of the book. This risk, unlike some of those others, pays off. Soon, the two are an item.
The rest of the book follows Carol and Z.D., each of them taking risks in the world and with one another. Z.D. engages in some not-so-legal money-making activities. Carol, who has always liked the excitement of gambling, finds herself increasingly challenged after she unexpectedly comes into a large amount of money following a painful loss. The novel follows the characters (and their wide circle of friends) as they navigate challenges that are not necessarily unusual, but nevertheless can strain relationships and personalities to breaking.
Evoking a place and a time just as vividly as Dykewomon’s previous offerings, Risk offers a narrative filled with flawed and extremely human characters trying to create connection on an intimate and a larger level. Everyone is trying to do the right thing, but sometimes intention is not quite enough.