Book review: Pulp, by Robin Talley

Talley, Robin. Pulp. Harlequin Teen. 2018. $18.99. 416p. HC. ISBN: 9781335012906.

Book cover of Pulp, by Robin Talley“Love is wonderful, but change can be wonderful, too. There are lots of different routes to happy-ever-after.” 

The premise of Robin Talley’s Pulp promises queer readers many things they are not used to having: mainly, stories centering queer characters and in-depth exploration of queer history. It appears too good to be true. But throughout the novel, Talley continues to rise to the challenge. Switching between POV chapters between two lesbians, one in modern day D.C., the other growing up in the fifties during the Lavender Scare, the differences culminate in a wonderful journey about love and change.

We first meet Abby Zimet, a teenager growing up in D.C. in 2017. She is going through a breakup, applying to colleges, and working on a final assignment that brings her in contact with the 80’s lesbian pulp of the past. Touched by the struggle of queer women in the past, Abby begins to obsess over the author of her favorite lesbian pulp fiction, committed to finding out her true identity.

As Abby continues her hunt for the true identity of her favorite author, Marian Love, we meet Janet Jones, a young lesbian growing up in D.C. in the fifties, at the height of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare. Where Abby finds acceptance with her family and queer-identifying friends, Janet has no one and is increasingly alone in her same sex attraction. That is, until she comes across a lesbian pulp novel that normalizes her attraction and makes her feel much less alone.

Talley does an excellent job of weaving lesbian history into the everyday struggles of Abby and Janet’s lives, and never does it feel forced or take away from the story itself. Readers continue to learn queer history throughout the novel, as Abby does, and as Janet experiences it. The history and the story merge perfectly well together, but the stories of Abby and Janet often do not. Most of the action and emotion is found in Janet’s story, and readers may find themselves moving through the story very quickly, primarily to get back to Janet’s story and find out how she would find happiness in a world that wasn’t used to allowing that for queer women.

Overall, Talley takes a very ambitious premise and the novel lives up to it. History blends perfectly with a tale of the present, where a young lesbian learns a lot about herself and the nature of love. Where many YA novels end happily, with all the loose ends tied up neatly, Talley does an excellent job of providing an open-ended story for both Abby and Janet, where their sexuality is front and center, but their love lives are not. It was a refreshing change for a young adult novel, and a welcomed one. Recommended to anyone interested in queer history, high school-age readers and older.

Rachel Newlin

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