Brown, Rita Mae
Brown, Rita Mae 1944–
Brown, an American, writes conventionally structured novels about bright, beautiful, successful lesbians. Apart from the literary novelty of her heroines, Brown's popularity seems also to derive from her narrative ability and her energetic humor. She is best known for her first work, Rubyfruit Jungle. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)
"Rubyfruit Jungle" is basically a breathless rush through some of the primary colors of the English language to tell the story of Molly Bolt: born female, gay, illegitimate, poor, unloved, and white trash—but with enough courage, humor, and grit to get her from nowhere ("flatlands full of sandspurs, lizards, and cockroaches …") to everywhere ("One way or another … I'm going to be the hottest 50-year-old this side of the Mississippi")….
Although much of Molly's world seems a cardboard stage-set lighted to reveal only Molly's virtues and those characteristics which mark her as the "exceptional" lesbian, only peripherally united with the routine hardship of ordinary dyke life, it is exactly this quality of "Rubyfruit Jungle" which makes it exemplary (for women) of its kind: an American primitive, whose predecessors have dealt only with male heroes. Although Molly Bolt is not a real woman, she is at least the first real image of a heroine in the noble savage, leatherstocking, true-blue bullfighting tradition in this country's literature. And it is the easiest thing in the world to wish her well.
Bertha Harris, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), April 4, 1974, p. 36.
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For those who think fiction is not the place to sermonize, Rubyfruit Jungle is often too blatantly preachy. Molly, the main character, has been a radical lesbian from birth, refusing all the conventional limitations of being a girl. In play she says, "I got to be the doctor because I'm the smart one and being a girl don't matter." Faced with the requirement to please others, she counters with, "I care if I like me, that's what I really care about." These assertions are the sort also to be found in the new, right-minded literature for children being published by feminist presses. There is nothing wrong with them. Nor is there anything wrong with Molly's sermonizing to a friend who feels limited by her background in what she can do with her life…. But the earnestness would weigh heavily if the book were not lifted by arrogant humor, never-mind-the-consequences fury, and transcending tenderness…. The film Molly makes of her adopted mother as a thesis for her degree is the device by which Molly transcends the bitterness she might otherwise have fixed on, for the film is the real portrait of a woman who did what she could in a narrow, prejudice-ridden world from which she had no way of escape. At the same time, it underlines the remarkable gifts of defiance and intelligence which have marked Molly for freedom. Rubyfruit Jungle is a far shout from the maimed religious and psychological apology of The Well of Loneliness and, as...
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Rita Mae Brown's [In Her Day] disappointed me, despite my pleasure in reading of places I know and struggles I have lived—as well as in reading a story in which lesbianism, while an important part of the characters' lives, is a given, and not itself the central conflict….
My disappointment has two sources—one, a desire, simply, for more of the novelist's skill: greater differentiation between one character's voice and another's; more scenic embodiment and less summary explanation of characters' thoughts and feelings; more control of rhythms. Brown writes in the illusionist mode of "realistic" fiction, but the illusion of reality suffers from the characters' simple identification with their political platforms. There is optimism and strength in Rita Mae Brown's voice, but I miss the complexity, the risks, the irreducible paradoxes in our human experience that must be a part of the novelist's seeing us whole in our time and place.
Joan Larkin, "In Short: 'In Her Day'," in Ms. (© 1977 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. V, No. 10, April, 1977, p. 44.
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Terry Curtis Fox
Rubyfruit is the thrice-told 20th-century tale: Sensitive member of outside group heads toward American society and lives to tell the tale. We've had it from immigrants, blacks, and women, so it's no surprise we'd find it from gays. Rubyfruit starts with early childhood and proceeds—in picaresque fashion—through adolescence, awakening sexuality (there's a very early, very funny exploration of lesbianism as well as a soon-cast-off heterosexlife), the inevitable trip to New York (where the gays are), and the equally inevitable graduation from NYU (this is, after all, a novel of education).
Being a familiar story helps—this tale is part of American myth. It also helps that Molly Bolt, the semiautobiog heroine, comes from a poor white Southern culture. Like an immigrant, black, or straight woman novelist, she is not at home in the culture of her family or the society at large. She bands with other outsiders, and it is this inclusive society which broadens the novel's appeal. You don't have to be gay or female to identify with Molly Bolt—she is one of the outsiders many of us believe ourselves to be.
None of this would matter much if Rita Mae Brown couldn't write. But her evocation of childhood in the book's first chapters is astonishing; without ever losing the perspective of an adult looking back, she enters into a child's consciousness, thus playing fair with both the readers and the character…....
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Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle was an upstart in the publishing world…. Six of One is a bright and worthy successor.
Nickel, a young woman whom we just might confuse with Rita Mae Brown, returns to her hometown, the jaunty Runnymede on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. It is a madcap mixture of North and South, folk spunk and high elegance, and defiantly its own place. The author explores the town's cultural psychology like an American Evelyn Waugh, finding dignity and beauty without bypassing the zany and the corrupt. The present of the novel, 1980, gives way to several excursions to the past, beginning in 1908. In this shifting of scenes through the decades, Nickel learns that hers is a rich legacy: Runnymede's women.
Three generations of spirited women surmount parochial codes and ladylike priorities through harrowing crises and in harmless pranks….
If at times the comedy veers toward slapstick, and if there are spots when the prose just grazes the beauty of the human moment (as in the description of Ramelle's death vision), the novel loses none of its warmth.
John Fludas, "Books in Brief: 'Six of One'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 25, September 30, 1978, p. 52.
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[Six of One] is in large part dialogue, and Brown, like many of her colleagues, favors rapid-fire witticism. Unfortunately she uses blanks, as for instance: "Your glasses got so many rhinestones on them, when the sun hits you, people are blinded by the light." The wise-cracks are fast enough, but no sooner sent off than they stop, drop, fizzle and fade into the next spurious remark, leaving the reader only bewildered, and after a very few pages annoyed. Clearly [Brown is] a devotee of the Marilyn French school of fractious dialogue….
The narrative is, if possible, even less graceful than the dialogue.
The story itself is rather tendencious. Brown's goal it appears is to show how wise, witty, wonderful and cute women really are. Her silent competitor in this game is the masculine standard; her method, systematic oneupmanship. The women in Six of One buzz around like furies trying to out-curse, out-class, out-wit, out-smart, out-shout, out-smoke, out-drink, out-read, out-think, out-lech, out-number and outrage every man, dead or alive, in history. Needless to say, ambition frequently leads the author to extremes…. Of course, beating men at their own game is nothing new in the world, nor, come to that, is it very difficult. But as if to insure her success, Brown makes her men as flat as the paper on which they're scrawled. The problem with her men is not even so much that they lack dimension as that...
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Shelly Temchin Henze
Rita Mae Brown is as subversive as apple pie. Her favorite author, according to the flyleaf of Six of One, is Mark Twain. It doesn't surprise me a bit. Imagine, if you will, Tom Sawyer, only smarter; Huckleberry Finn, only foulmouthed, female, and lesbian, and you have an idea of Molly Bolt, heroine of Rubyfruit Jungle. This largely autobiographical first novel … [features] an exuberantly raunchy style and the toughest heroine this side of Mae West. The book was funny, explosive, shocking—a clear hit, and one that landed Brown … a reputation as a radical feminist.
[Rubyfruit Jungle is] a classic American success story, really; by a winning combination of pluck, wit, and good looks the hero rises out of poverty and ignorance and into a fine liberal arts college, embarks bravely on a career, and returns home at tale's end to measure the distance traveled. Brown's perspective, though, is original. While American heroes may occasionally be women, they may not be lesbian. Or if they are, they had better be discreet or at least miserable.
Not Molly. She is lusty and lewd and pursues sex with relentless gusto….
Brown's terse, tough writing is perfect for catching the uncluttered logic, the naive arrogance of children. She is stunning when recreating the high spirits and low humor of kids, their vindictiveness, and their sudden frailties. She is good, too, when enumerating with...
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Told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards (to 1980), Six of One is the story of two sisters who have been fighting like hellcats since early childhood in 1909. It is also the story of a group of rich, indolent women in a small American town meeting regularly over the years to play bridge in the house of the lesbian and very beautiful Celeste Chalfonte. No one is particularly likeable and—greatly weakening the novel's credibility—none of the characters develops one iota from the moment she is first introduced to the reader. All the same, Rita Mae Brown reveals a talent for comic writing, getting under the skin of smalltown rituals and pretensions, rather in the way of Peter de Vries.
Susan Kennedy, "Catching Up: 'Six of One'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times News-papers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 104.
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