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literature

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Alther, Lisa (b. 1944)  

American novelist Lisa Alther creates fictional worlds in which lesbianism is a fluctuating force as tenuous as all other forms of relationships in a frequently absurd universe.

Born July 23, 1944, in Tennessee, Alther had a privileged upbringing as the daughter of a surgeon. Educated at Wellesley College in the 1960s, Alther experienced firsthand the tumultuous events that were to be portrayed so vividly in her best-known novel, Kinflicks (1976).

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This satirical novel, Alther's first, met with tremendous popular success, shooting to the top of the best-seller list. Ginny Babcock, the book's heroine, leaves her Tennessee home to attend Worthley College, an elite women's college in the East, where she meets Eddie, a fiery young radical lesbian. In order to sort out their new priorities, Ginny and Eddie leave college, live in Boston, and finally, move to a lesbian communal farm in Vermont. Life on the farm is hectic and hilarious since none of the residents have any extensive knowledge of farming.

But lesbianism is only one phase in Ginny's constantly changing life: Next, she tries marriage to a man, and at the conclusion of the novel, she leaves her husband to return to the South to minister to her dying mother. This novel is memorable for its depiction of lesbian feminism and separatist politics in the 1960s and for presenting lesbianism as a desirable way of relating to other women.

Alther's other novels also focus on the dynamics of lesbian interactions. Original Sins (1981) shows one of its central characters, Emily, coming to recognize her lesbianism against the background of the women's rights struggle and the civil rights movement.

Other Women (1984) explores the relationship between Caroline Kelley and her lover, charting the changes in it as Caroline undergoes psychotherapy. She struggles to understand her relationship to her therapist and her parents, as well as the seemingly random and awful happenings in the world. This novel depicts the often ludicrous behavior of both heterosexuals and homosexuals, without suggesting that one group is superior to the other.

Bedrock (1990), like many of Alther's novels, shows how difficult it is to define who is a lesbian and who is not. Clea Shawn is married and has children, yet she has a friendship with another woman, Elke, which is described as a "charged connection" compared to the "more comfortable old-shoe camaraderie each shared with her husband."

Neither of these women is explicitly identified as lesbian, and Elke even wonders, "Like the tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, if you didn't act on your attraction to women, were you nevertheless a lesbian?" Alther provides no clear answer to this question but does show lesbian relationships as one of the many ways in which women try to communicate with each other.

In Alther's fictional world, lesbianism is a fluctuating force, which is as tenuous as all other forms of relationships in a universe that frequently appears frighteningly absurd. Alther points out that any form of relationship between humans, including lesbianism, deserves our understanding and sympathy since, as the Cheshire Cat observes in Alice in Wonderland, "we're all mad here."

Sherrie A. Inness

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Heller, Zoe. "Journey to Herself." New Statesman & Society (August 17, 1990): 36-37.

Montrose, David. "Imperfections of the Art and of the Life." Times Literary Supplement (August 17, 1990): 868.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Inness, Sherrie A.  
    Entry Title: Alther, Lisa  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 4, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/alther_l.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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