Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She’s Missing

Publisher: Soft Skull Press

2012, 240 pages, paperback, $13

Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s debut novel, Herself When She’s Missing, is a masterful reflection on the cohabitation of regret and happiness that accompanies sexual obsession. The novel, which has been labeled a contemporary lesbian novel, transcends sexual orientation, and instead showcases the universal complexities of romantic relationships through the flawed relationship between Andrea, a quasi-responsible twenty-something, and her on-again, off-again lover, Jordan.

Andrea meets Jordan, who’s in her early forties, at a Cry Wolf concert in Los Angeles where the women confess their mutual obsession for the brother and sister music duo. Both Andrea and Jordan claim Cry Wolf saved their lives, or as their splintering relationship proves, provided both women with a grounding rod in their otherwise shifting and unsure romance.

Andrea and Jordan’s relationship is doomed from the start: Jordan is married to another woman. Aware of Jordan’s history of infidelity, Andrea justifies their relationship based on the dynamic sex between them:

Andrea has no words to describe sex with Jordan; in fact, the act empties her of words. Their connection has little to do with Andrea’s level of experience; it’s about a third thing they create when the two of them are present.

“Sex,” Jordan says, leaning back on a pillow, or if they’ve ended up on the floor as is common, possibly a shoe, “lifts you out of yourself more clearly than anything divine.”

Andrea is intense, deftly drawn from both her physical and emotional observations of daily life. We begin to wonder if her uncanny ability to compartmentalize Jordan’s infidelity and manipulative demeanor is a product of their relationship or an ironic talent for which Andrea receives the kind of attention on which she thrives, “She likes the parts of me that are broken, Andrea thinks. She likes them the way a thief likes a loose screen.

Rosenblum’s use of non-linear narrative mimics memory’s limitations, “Memories swirl like snowflakes; there is no pure present, just this white expanse of all instants at once.” Andrea’s memories are presented to readers in lush flashbacks, and the details of these flashbacks are categorized into mental “3×5 cards” assuring Andrea of what can safely be assumed as truth. However, these are the only truths of which she’s certain. Examples of Andrea’s lists include: Jordan’s Top Five Songs, What She’s Worth to Jordan, and Jordan’s Over-Used Catchphrases, of which the last entry reads, “I love you.”

Rosenblum’s novel asks if sexual obsession defines us or inhibits who we could become. The first time Jordan leaves her, Andrea flees for Chicago, but when Jordan unexpectedly shows up at her door, Andrea cannot help but take her back. Rosenblum’s themes of obsession and infidelity pale in comparison to the novel’s violence, which begins as sexual play between Andrea and Jordan, and escalates into what becomes out and out abuse. Andrea, a woman with a teaching job, a best friend, and loving parents—a woman who is very much “normal”—must decide how much abuse she’s willing to overlook for the psychological and sexual contentment she achieves through the sexual dynamics of their relationship. Rosenblum’s characters place us into a world where needs and wants are inseparable and remind readers that none of us are exempt from the power of our desires.

The writing floats above the page, providing unforgettable, lyrical descriptions while softly weaving dark and inventive humor into Andrea’s world:

The Midwest alternative seems suddenly more alarming. Here, inevitable months distinct and determined, line up and drop like stones. Winter chases summer, no, that’s not right, Andrea thinks, pulling gloves from her pocket, more like winter is summer shot dead.  

In contrast, Rosenblum sprinkles the novel with witty moments that crack like a whip, pushing the story’s momentum up and over hill after surprising hill. After having sex with Jordan for hours at a motel until Andrea, “…aching and hungry…” can think of nothing but different types of meat, the two women feast on Thai food at two AM before watching Pillow Talk and listening to Madonna’s new album on repeat. Jordan is adamant, she keeps getting up from bed to skip the first song later telling Andrea, “I couldn’t fuck you while Madonna was rapping about lattes.”

In Herself When She’s Missing, Rosenblum has handed over her writer-heart to readers. Her no-nonsense prose has created a world both dark and familiar with stark and beautiful imagery as well as a story that blurs love and sex, revelation by messy revelation. Rosenblum is not interested in handholding; her readers are honored as capable of compiling lists and drawing their own conclusions. The beautiful irony of this novel is the agency that Rosenblum grants her readers, yet dangles before her characters who are always finding themselves at least one truth away from where they should be.

—Cristina Chopalli