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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.)
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"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 propaganda, healthier, for protest is a more accurate weapon against bigotry than special pleading. Rita Mae Brown is ready to play without a handicap. (pp. 194-95)
Jane Rule, "Four Decades of Fiction," in her Lesbian Images (copyright © 1975 by Jane Rule; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1975, pp. 183-96.∗
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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...
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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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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…. There's a mean, condescending streak which begins to appear toward the book's end, but you figure it for a bitter undercurrent that will disappear with success, the movement, or both. This woman includes too much to become an exclusive writer.
Alas, it ain't so. If Rubyfruit Jungle succeeds as an outsider's first novel, In Her Day fails as an insider's second. This is the story of two generations of lesbian women—a middle-aged, semi-closeted, premovement art historian and a hyper-politicized waitress/activist—who meet at Mother Courage and try to reconcile their up-and downtown lives. The world of In Her Day becomes increasingly hermetic even as the characters plead for greater grace.
As for the writing, Brown seems to have lost her style along with her theme. How the woman who wrote Rubyfruit could ever permit "Skilled in emotional blackmail, Olive constantly gummed up meetings with Esalen techniques" to reach final draft is baffling.
Terry Curtis Fox, "Up from Cultdom and Down Again," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), Vol. XXII, No. 37, September 12, 1977, p. 41.
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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 they don't quite qualify as male….
The men in Six of One are, with few exceptions, dead, estranged, stupid, cuckolded, or living in California. Moreover men are the villains of the piece, represented by the Rife family….
What Brown is doing in Six of One is known colloquially as 'showing off.' The book is less a novel than a wordy costume the author wears to parade herself before her faceless audience. Her heroines are presented not for inspection but as subjects for whom the narrative implicitly demands admiration. Not a page goes by without Brown force-feeding her reader ludicrous antics, snapless repartee or both. The trouble with Six of One is that its author is concerned less with her characters than with extracting wonder and appreciation from her audience. Thus her occasional attempts at pathos are pretty pathetic, particularly in the chapters where she takes on the war genre. She has the lingo down, but that's about all. Likewise, the southern epithets on which the book relies so heavily amount, in the absence of a controlling sense of humor—or maybe in her frenzy to get them all in—to little more than a compendium of dry regionalisms. In fact, the whole ordered thing is reducible to those age-old juvenile call words: 'Look Ma, no hands.' But something is wrong with this theory; after all, the book has its share of compassionate mothers.
The novel's real concern is probably not with mothers at all, but with fathers. The mothers in Six of One are all relatively normal, while the fathers are cleanly segregated into categories of good and bad…. The good versus bad father line-up is reminiscent of the old prostitute-madonna split. All things being equal it looks as though Freud's double-mother will have to move over and let double-dad into the bed. Of course all of this could make a terrific novel (and has in the past) if only Brown possessed some modicum of perspective. But rather than exploit the father/fiend duality, she has turned away from its complexities in favor of a world of, by, for, and about women, in which men are at best peripheral. This leaves her to contend with the problems of reconciling lesbianism and motherhood (no small matter if you think about it), and inventing new and better ways to out-man men—a struggle that is already beneath boredom, but one which I suspect says a lot about the audience to whom the book is addressed. Whom after all is she trying to impress—other women? I doubt Brown has any knowledge of her own motives or those of her characters in this regard, nor does she ever distinguish between the two…. In all, the insistent competition with, and displacement of men suggests that Brown, and I might add a number of her colleagues, envy men something they themselves haven't got. I refer of course to comic heroes.
For a few years now men have been complaining that women, and specifically feminists, have lost their sense of humor. It is a serious charge, but there are many kinds of women, and among them only the novelists seem to lack humor consistently. And it isn't as if they don't try, either. Brown obviously wants to be funny, but something stops her. It is probably the same something that stopped Erica Jong's Fear of Flying when, after a few reasonably amusing words of introduction, she spun off in a cyclone of self-absorption, never to be seen, or read, again. Somehow self-scrutiny has become confused with solemnity, which has squashed in its turn things like humor, honesty, spontaneity and interest in its drive to keep up a straight face. But they are searching for the female identity, they say, and this is a serious business. (p. 25)
Liz Mednick, "How to Beat a Dead Horse Senseless," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1978 by Richard W. Burgin), No. 12, November-December, 1978, pp. 25-6.∗
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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 ribald glee the joys of sex. She is less successful, though, in dealing with the complexities of mature emotions. The result is that her adults come off as oversized children.
Little Molly, repellent as some of her schemes are, is somehow wonderful in her resourcefulness, her freshness. It is spunky and rambunctious for a bossy little girl to taunt her older, dumber buddies, or to feed another brat rabbit turds disguised as raisins; it is merely ugly for Molly the secretary to stuff another woman's desk with dog shit.
It is not just a question of style, or tact or taste, either. Humorists traditionally have sharp tongues and Brown's idol Mark Twain ranks with the best of them on that score. But Twain distances himself from his creatures with a sort of gentle malice that encompasses them all. Not Brown—she's right in there slugging for Molly, letting fly at all comers with bruising sarcasm and a disconcertingly self-righteous didacticism.
Lord knows, some of them are asking for it. Though she swaggers through it all with her usual bravado, Molly's first encounters with prejudice are poignant….
It is surprising that Molly Bolt has been taken up as a symbol of a movement, a sisterly struggle. Rubyfruit Jungle is not about revolution, nor even particularly about feminism. It is about standing on your own two feet, creaming the competition, looking out for Number One….
Brown's second novel, In Her Day, is another success story. (p. 17)
Brown is out to kill the stereotype of lesbians as ugly, unhappy, and self-destructive. In its place she has created a mythical land in which all lesbians are beautiful and brilliant and witty and accomplished. (pp. 17-18)
What Rita Mae Brown likes best about Mark Twain is that "He was American to the marrow of his bones, and so am I." It's true. Six of One, her latest novel, is a family chronicle of three generations…. [It] is one of those sweeping sagas that capture a whole era in twenty carefully-chosen characters. It is just flippant enough to recall the fighting days of Rubyfruit Jungle….
Her ladies like sex (and each other) too much to be respectable, but Brown has conceived a surprisingly accepting, even celebratory portrait of down-home America. This is the kind of story where handsome boys fall in love with spirited girls who demolish the porch in their first driving lesson and get testy the day before their period; the kind of story where men die for honor while strong women support and mourn them.
The book starts off strongly, looking back in mock-epic style from 1980 to 1909, when it all began. The great hair-ribbon debate, that is, that started the feud between the sisters who have not stopped fighting since.
The tale is told episodically, with flashbacks and fast-for-wards playing off against one another….
This is an effective device that allows Brown to enlarge the scope of her tale both in time and in space, following the meanderings of memory and experience to wars and lovers' quarrels and children's spats …, and lazy days when there is nothing to do except make up stories. But it also points up the deficiencies of her style. Time progresses, measured off in days and years, but the characters do not: The two old biddies at the center of the narrative trade off the same scatological insults at seventy as at six; patrician Celeste acquires political insight but no emotional depth.
There is a heavy-handedness here, or a flatness, which gives the characters the simplicity of heroes of a Western….
Brown is much softer, more forgiving in this book than in the earlier ones. Her creation of sympathetic male characters and rich, spoiled women who are nevertheless valiant shows a generosity of spirit not in evidence elsewhere. But there is also naivete here, and moralizing complacency….
I like Rita Mae Brown better the way she was in Rubyfruit Jungle. Tough and sassy and just the way she says, "poly-morphous and perverse." (p. 18)
Shelly Temchin Henze, "Rita Mae Brown, All-American," in New Boston Review (copyright 1979 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. IV, No. V, April-May, 1979, pp. 17-18.
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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.