Stray City by Chelsey Johnson (Contemporary Novel, 2018).
In the last months of the 20th century, Andrea Morales is a 20-something artist who has left behind her very conventional Midwestern Catholic upbringing for life as part of the thriving and politically active lesbian community of Portland, Oregon. Most of her associates, friends and lovers are (like her) not native to the city. But Portland’s basically tolerant atmosphere attracts all sorts of ‘strays’ like her–hence the book’s title.
While she’s never had strong feelings of desire for men, she drifts toward the unthinkable: An encounter with a male musician friend. Andrea (‘Andy’ to her friends) is going through a difficult breakup and a friend’s betrayal. So she’s more vulnerable than she’d care to admit. And he’s a fun person, forever in and out of town playing gigs. From her point of view, he’s fobidden fruit–making the on-again, off-again (and secret) affair they start seem doubly intriguing. The sex still doesn’t compare to her best lesbian experiences (it’s simply not her thing), but she’s kind of drifting along–until she finds herself pregnant.
Andy’s artsy, very political friends (the self-proclaimed Lesbian Mafia) are shocked. So is father-to-be Ryan. But he and Andy move in together, and once they accept the notion, her other friends pitch in to help. Foottloose Ryan doesn’t adapt well to the situation and eventually takes off, leaving Andy with only her friends for support.
To this point (about page 275), the novel has been told by Andy in her own quirky, sometimes uncertain but idealistic and mostly charming voice.
A series of short chapters comprised of phone messages, letters (many not sent), emails and the like bring Ryan’s viewpoint into focus. Yes, he’s immature–but he’s also in genuine pain because Andy is just not built to fully return the sort of love he feels for her. He’s not coming home and Andy senses it’s for the best, despite the difficulties it presents her with.
Shifting (somewhat jarringly, I felt) to a third-person narrative, Andy has a daughter and in the book’s last part, we jump forward 10 years. Her daughter Lucia is a bright, happy kid. Andrea has a new love, a Brazilian woman, Beatriz and all seems fine–once a sham marriage to a gay male friend ensures her immigration status (remember, this is shortly before the advent of legal gay marriage). The wedding and preparations for convincing the Immigration Service that things are kosher allow for an amusing and insightful interlude.
Soon, ever-curious Lucia starts poking around and forces Andy to admit facts she’s kept from her about the father she’s never met. And she decides she wants to meet the guy. This sets up a journey to the wilds of Montana for Andy, Beatriz and Lucia to meet Ryan. There’s understandable tension, but things work out without major explosions or undue melodrama but genuine emotions. And on a very minor note, I was glad that now-elderly Edith Head (the stray cat who first adopted Andy, then accompanied Ryan on his travels) was around to make Lucia’s acquaintance.
Given the necessity of revealing the thoughts and feelings of other characters, the late shift away from Andrea’s voice was understandable, if it felt a bit clumsy. But this is a VERY minor criticism. Overall, this is a fine, humane and human first novel. Its author, Chelsea Johnson has already published a good number of short stories and won awards for them. This novel tells me she is more than a capable of doing big things with book-length pieces–and this is a quite worthy beginning to this new pahse of her career.