Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller: B-

9780449210079From the back cover:
Early in the nineteenth century, in a puritanical New England town, two women did something unspeakable, something unheard of—they fell in love with each other. With nothing and no one to guide or support them, Patience and Sarah tried to follow their hearts.

And when family pressures separated them, the two women dreamed of leaving their homes, of being together. Defying society and history, they bought a farm and discovered they could live together, away from a world that had put limits on them and their love.

Review:
Patience White has been provided for. Her father’s will made certain that there would always be a place for her in her devout brother’s Connecticut home, but that isn’t enough to make Patience happy. She doesn’t want the things that a woman of her age (late twenties) should want, and though she helps out around the house, Edward’s wife, Martha, makes her feel guilty for desiring privacy to work on her paintings. When she meets Sarah Dowling, conscripted to serve as “Pa’s boy” in the absence of any male siblings and entirely unaware that her manners shock more proper folk, she is immediately intrigued.

Kisses soon ensue, followed by Sarah’s inability to realize that some things should be kept secret, a journey in boy’s clothes, vague yet plentiful sex scenes, manipulation by Patience to get Sarah to agree to come away with her, familial discovery, further journeying, and finally settling into farm life in New York. The narrative alternates between perspectives with occasionally amusing results (I enjoyed their differing accounts of their final parting with Edward) but with much repetition, since each woman experiences periods of insecurity as well as triumph in the knowledge that she can leave the other wanting her. One strange side effect was that although I disliked Sarah at the beginning of the novel, due to her remarkable lack of common sense, by the end I thought she was by far the better (and more genuine) of the two, since Patience could be deceitful in her quest to get her way.

I had expected, owing largely to the rhapsodies experienced by the leads in Annie on My Mind as they read and reread this book, that Patience & Sarah would be at least a little romantic, but really, it is not. Instead, I’d describe it as carnal. When I say that “kisses soon ensue,” I mean really soon, and with little preamble as to why these women are drawn to each other. Suddenly, it’s just instant passion. There are some parts of the novel that I liked—slice-of-life passages about chopping wood and sewing curtains, card games they play with Sarah’s mother, or the stray dog that promptly adopts them when they get to their new home—but I couldn’t care much about the characters or their relationship. Plus, all the parts that I liked are sullied by the ending, in which Patience declares that now that they have their own place they will “make the bed gallop,” which makes it seem that everything they’ve done has been with coital goals in mind.

Another thing I noticed is that nearly everyone else in the novel is made to desire the protagonists. Sarah’s sister offers to do for her whatever Patience does (eww), it’s suspected that Edward likes to imagine the two of them together, Sarah’s traveling companion tries to put the moves on her (granted, he thinks she’s a boy at the time), and one of Martha’s main objections to the relationship is that Patience is fooling around with someone “outside of the family.” I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly. With Edward and Martha it could be a case of pointing out their hypocrisy, but what of the others?

In the end, Patience & Sarah was not what I’d expected it to be. If this had been a straight romance, I might not even have finished it.

Additional reviews of Patience & Sarah can be found at Triple Take.

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