I owe the inspiration for this post to my friend and WAG magazine colleague Ronni Diamondstein, a writer with superb taste in literature, as befits a former librarian.
Ronni, who has lived in and written about The Netherlands, recommended Jessie Burton’s new novel “The Miniaturist” (Ecco/Harper Collins, $26.99, 400 pages) – a book that I devoured one evening and that has made me despair of being a novelist as it is such a marvelous evocation of Holland in the 17th century. (Think Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” only darker.) You can almost smell the tang of the water rising from the canals and the sea.
“The Miniaturist” is about a country girl with an old family name but little money who arrives in Amsterdam to be the bride of a wealthy, worldly merchant. As a wedding gift and amusement, he gives her a dollhouse that resembles their richly furnished home and then encourages her to fill it with lovely appointments. (These “cabinet houses” were popular among the burghers of that period as they indicated social status the way a Mercedes would today.)
To furnish the little house, our heroine writes to the mysterious title character for tiny treasures – an exquisitely carved lute that reminds her of her own musicianship, the marzipan she enjoys so well.
Soon, however, these treasures begin arriving unsolicited, reflecting not only the lives lead in her home but foreshadowing a relationship with a husband who is not what he seems. (Anymore than his pious, disapproving sister is.)
Spoiler alert: Stop reading here if you don’t want to know more about the plot. In the course of our conversation, Ronni said that with books like this and the novels of It Boy Richard Mason – whose “History of a Pleasure Seeker” (2011) features a bisexual hero – it seems as if gay characters are everywhere.
“Don’t you know, gay is the new black,” I said, not trying to be facetious or disrespectful. In a sense, I’m heartened as gay characters are at the heart of “Water Music” and in “The Penalty for Holding,” the first and forthcoming novels respectively in “The Games Men Play” series. (“The Penalty for Holding” was formerly titled “In This Place You Hold Me.”)
I’m heartened, too, that Apple CEO Tim Cook has come out. That’s huge. But as economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes in a piece on CNN’s website, there’s still plenty of workplace discrimination.
And The New York Times’ piece on Cook’s announcement pointed out that homosexuality is still a punishable offense in places like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – which gives me pause (to say nothing of goose bumps) as that has a direct effect on the plot of “The Penalty for Holding.” Indeed, it makes the title’s edge even sharper.
Just as troubling is a recent encounter I had with a gay graduate student writing a gay memoir who doesn’t want a gay audience. It brings to mind the Groucho Marx line “I wouldn’t belong to any country club that would have me as a member.”
So when I say “Gay is the new black,” yes, it’s fashionable. But just as blacks suffered a backlash during the Civil Rights Movement, gays are not out of the woods yet.
Even if they’re out of the literary and corporate closet.