Patience and Sarah (Isabel Miller)

The Plot
It’s 1816 and Patience White is a spinster whose father saw to it that she’d not be dependant upon the charity of her brother after his death. With food, money and a place to live assured, she should be content and able to enjoy her life, but she is restless. She finds herself interested in one Sarah Dowling, a daughter of a man with only girl children who has been trained up to be his “son”. The two form a plan to move away together, but Patience loses her nerve and Sarah attempts to go west (from Connecticut to upstate New York) without her.

My Thoughts
I’m going to try something different this time and write a running review as I make my way through the book.

I’ll be upfront: I was reluctant to read this book in the first place, but eventually capitulated. So I had a prejudice against it from the get go. This was not improved upon seeing the book’s cover, which for some reason turns me off utterly. The image is not actually that awful — two women, presumably Patience and Sarah — in somewhat cartoony form, standing next to one another. It generated instant hate in me and destroyed any possible urge to want to read the book.

So I didn’t. Eventually putting it off added its own block to my resistance to reading it and it became extremely difficult to pick it up. I finally forced myself to do so by bringing only it to work with me and reading it during my meal break.

The book thus far is decidedly mediocre. I venture to say that had this book not involved two women, it would have been long forgotten and weeded from any library collection. But it does and so achieves a status I’m not sure it really deserves.

Patience and Sarah inhabit an intensely chauvinistic world, where women have little value other than as baby machines. Their opinions are neither respected nor sought and they are made old before their time with repeated childbearing. The menfolk around them seem aware of the strange difference in status between men and women, mildly puzzled by it, but not especially driven to fix it. The women seem aware as well, but again, have no interest in fixing it. I’m sure this is a true description to some extent, but something about it just feels… off. Almost everyone around them seems beaten down and lifeless — Patience’s sister-in-law Martha, Sarah’s mother and father — unable to take joy in anything at all without the assistance of Patience herself.

Patience and Sarah find each other seemingly by chance. I found the development of their relationship to be too quick for my taste. First they’ve barely met and then suddenly they’re going to run away together and Sarah is enduring multiple beatings from her father because of her flaming passion for Patience? Eh. (Let it be said that I find this sort of goings on in heterosexual relationships twinky as well.) Perhaps it was meant as some kind of lame Romeo and Juliet metaphor (see previous comment about heterosexual twinkiness).

In any case, because they know each other hardly at all, they end up essentially breaking up over a misunderstanding (now there’s a plot I love. Not.) and Sarah sets off on her own disguised as a boy. Except that she doesn’t really have any idea of what ‘setting off on her own’ entails and she ends up wandering around western New England with a Minister who apparently has a weakness for young men. Huck Finn she is not.

Eventually Sarah returns, having failed at accomplishing much of anything, and Patience, who mysteriously has been allowed to work as a school teacher (this also struck me as odd; it had been my impression that the teaching profession as staffed mostly by young women was a post Civil War innovation) decides that they are going to get back together. By this point I was finding it really hard to muster any sort of interest at all in their doings, so their subsequent naughty make-out sessions at Patience’s house did little for me.

As the book continued, it seemed more clear that their relationship, while it may have had physical attraction, didn’t really seem founded on any sort of rational basis. They still hardly knew one another at all, and there was very little mutual respect or trust. One or the other of them seemed to be constantly in a panic that the other was no longer interested in them or would be mad about some random deception. Which deception would never have been necessary had they been actual friends who had real conversations.

That they had started to develop this sort of by the end of the book was good, except — it was the end of the book.

In Short
I didn’t go into this book with a good attitude and the book didn’t manage to erase my prejudice with its sheer awesomeness. The relationship between Patience and Sarah was poorly developed and I never managed to find myself concerned about their well-being or their eventual success in life.

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