Book Review: Lemon Reef by Robin Silverman
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog. Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida. But a phone call comes in. Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30. The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that. Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.
The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing. There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did. In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in. Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently. I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.
There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon. Every single character has flaws and good qualities. Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna. Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs. Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter. Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves. The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read. There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in. I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer. She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.
The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters. There are lines that just totally grab you.
Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)
I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex. She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too. She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even. But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community. I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But I found this complexity interesting. It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life. This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.
There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book. For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground. Things like that that are periodically clunky. I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.
I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife. I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral. Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison. It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple. I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.
Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit. Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested. I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.
4 out of 5 stars