Reviewed by Milena Velez
Lara Lillibridge’s debut memoir Girl-ish: Growing up in a Lesbian Home is a family saga set to a backdrop of American cultural life in the 1970s and 1980s, infused with a blend of raw honesty and unassuming but genuine storytelling. Following the story of Lillibridge’s character, Girl, the book meanders between small everyday moments and cornerstone events, taking the reader on an intimate adventure through Girl’s different periods of development: from the early years and elementary school through middle school, junior high, and high school, all the way to college and beyond.
The books starts off with a bit of a deception, a sleight of hand if you will—the subtitle suggests the focus of the narrative to be on Lillibridge’s experience being raised by a lesbian couple. Yet, while her narrative gallantly incorporates Mother and Stepmother’s relationship along with Lillibridge’s struggles and revelations resulting from her parents’ sexuality, as a whole the story does not center around it. “The story everyone wants to hear isn’t the story I want to tell,” she writes. “Everyone wants to know what it was like to be raised by lesbians, how we functioned, what made it different. I want to talk about other things, the things that formed me and shaped me and scarred me.”
Yet it wasn’t the subtitle that first grabbed my attention; it was the title— that tentative, negotiable –ish following the Girl, as if placing a condition on what it means to be a girl or a woman. And on that, Lillibridge delivered as promised. We follow Girl through all the firsts, the lasts, the challenges and the mundanities of a young woman’s life. The narrator’s voice is lulling, deceptively calm yet never monotonous, at times harsh and graphic but never unbearable. As the reader is introduced to the cast of characters in Girl’s life—Brother, Mother, Stepmother, Father, Father’s Wives #4, #5, and #5 1/2—it becomes clear that this book does not merely tell the story of Girl but also that of her entire unorthodox modern family.
Lillibridge quietly unfolds Girl’s life before us in moments like a picture book: the long cross-country flights as unaccompanied minors, the Alaska boat trips, the naked camping trips, the glorious details like “the color of the dirt in the backyard of Mother and Stepmother’s house that got lodged under the children’s fingernails and no one made them clean.” The narrative slowly builds on, story after story, like soap bubbles in a bathtub casually accumulate under the force of the running water, getting stronger and thicker with each next addition. Lillibridge gently arranges the bright, glistening memories into the overall shape of her childhood and adolescent years, simultaneously obscuring and revealing herself through the use of a third person voice for most of the book, until she gradually emerges from the foam as a fully-formed character.
Ultimately, Girl-ish is a love story. Not the romantic kind, like the stories about lovers, but one of those drawn-out love stories that engulf generations and historic periods. The love story of a Girl slowly coming to terms with, then understanding, then liking, and eventually loving her non-traditional family. The love story of a Girl acquiring and understanding femininity in all its dimensions, and discovering herself as a part of her family and apart from it.
Lara Lillibridge is the winner of the 2016 Slippery Elm Prize in Prose. Read more about Lara and her work here: http://www.laralillibridge.com/