Pulp by Robin Talley

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I received a free e-ARC of Pulp by Robin Talley via NetGalley in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. Pulp is a queer YA historical novel, published by HQ Young Adult, an imprint of HQ, in December 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

I’d seen a lot of hype about Pulp around the bookish internet, so I was excited to pick it up. I’ve read some of Talley’s other books, with some mixed feelings about them. And sadly, Pulp was another that left me with mixed feelings, though I think a fair amount of that is probably my personal taste.

Pulp follows two parallel story lines. In modern day DC, Abby is struggling with her senior year of high school. She’s just broken up with her first girlfriend, and has some serious work to do in school. In the 50s, Janet has had her eyes opened to the fact that she might be a lesbian, something which, were she to be open about it, could place her in serious danger. The stories overlap when Abby delves into the world of lesbian pulp fiction, reads the book that Janet wrote, and becomes determined to discover what happened to its author.

As a historical novel, Pulp certainly brought home to me the dreadful realities of being gay in 1950s US. Janet reads as quite naïve to today’s audiences, but that only emphasises how very little information she had, and how few ways she had to get more information. She’s reliant on a whisper network, and on brave individuals willing to put themselves out there to try and educate her. It’s a chilling way to live, and given news coming from other places, such as Chechnya, it certainly made me grateful to be living in present day London, and more appreciative of the daily difficulties of people who came before.

The modern storyline, with Abby, is well-wrought, giving what felt to me like a realistic vision of a hugely stressed out senior who feels like everyone around her has a clear idea of what they’re doing with their lives, while she’s just treading water, trying to figure out where to go next. I could certainly relate to her in that way, and I think there will be plenty of other readers who feel similarly. Compared to Janet, Abby and her friends are incredibly worldly and knowledgeable, and learning about Janet’s story teaches Abby about how drastically things have changed in sixty years, and gives her some perspective on her own life.

The book also has commentary on what it means to be a writer, from both Abby and Janet’s perspectives. Without saying anything that would spoil the story, I definitely appreciated the lessons that Abby comes to learn about writing from investigating Janet’s life, and how books can mean hugely different things to their authors and their readers.

The reason I personally didn’t enjoy the book that much was because I struggled to connect to either of the main characters. I enjoyed reading about them, but didn’t feel particularly engaged with their stories. As I mentioned above, I think that’s probably a matter of personal taste. I’ve felt a similar way about others of Talley’s books that I’ve read, so I think it’s just that her writing doesn’t suit me personally.

Overall, Pulp is a well-written book with a great, diverse cast, which sheds light on a period of recent history which, from my knowledge, has been little touched upon by current YA novels. It offers an opportunity for modern readers to learn about the day to day experience of life as a queer person in the 1950s, as well as showing a modern teen who’s dealing with personal problems of her own. Though it wasn’t a book I enjoyed much myself, I think it would appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, parallel storylines, and anyone who’s enjoyed previous of Talley’s books.

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2 thoughts on “Pulp by Robin Talley

  1. This was a pretty thought provoking review! I think I agree that while the story has positives and negatives, learning more about lesbian culture in the 1950s was fascinating. Do you have any recommendations for other queer YA writers to check out?

    Liked by 1 person

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