Episode Number: 111
Episode Title: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (listen to this episode)
Transcript by: Susan the Great
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Renay: Hey, friends! I’m Renay.
Ana: And I’m Ana.
Renay: And you’re listening to Fangirl Happy Hour.
Renay: Today we’re here to do another Vault episode! Brought to you by our patrons.
Renay: We are going to discuss the novella by Ellen Klages called Passing Strange and then we’re gonna do some recs.
Ana: I’m wondering: did our patrons know that this novella would be nominated for a Nebula Award? When they picked this one? They probably did.
Renay: I agree.
Ana: Well done, patrons.
Renay: Well done. The thing about this Vault episode in particular is that it was chosen before our new rules which I created to make sure that we were discussing older things. So this one snuck in under the wire. Congratulations whoever chose this and had it win. I forget; it’s been a while. This is from last year I think, one of our extremely overdue Vault episodes, sorry guys. Here we are. We’re finally here. We’re doing it.
But I’m really glad that it got nominated because it won, and now it’s also an award nominee, which means I’m already ahead on my award nominee reading.
Ana: Woo hoo!
Renay: I’m excited. Passing Strange was a 2017 novella from Tor by Ellen Klages and it is about a group of women in 1940s San Francisco and how they form a tight-knit group of friends with some magic thrown in.
Ana: Literally thrown in.
Renay: Yes. That is accurate. Literally thrown in.
Ana: I have some feelings.
Renay: You said before we started that you had some feelings and that our conversation was going to be Interesting, but you did not elaborate.
Ana: Yeah. I have conflicted feelings about this novella.
So the framing of this novella is really interesting, right? Because it starts nowadays with a mysterious elderly lady who is sick. It’s her last day alive and she goes into a vault and gets something. And then she goes to a rare bookstore and has a whole conversation with the seller there about this infamous/famous painter of garish covers for science fiction magazines of the forties and how there has been rumors that this artist had painted one last cover before he disappeared. And that painting—the original of that cover—would have been worth a lot of money and…she has it. And she manages to sell it to this vendor.
And then the old lady goes and commits suicide. Takes some pills. But not before thinking how revenge has been achieved. But we don’t know anything about that yet, or how she’s connected with the painter, apart from the fact that we know that she loves Haskel, or had loved Haskel, which is the name of the painter who turns out to not have been a man at all. It was actually a woman, painting under a pseudonym. And then the story goes back in time and we see the story of Haskel and how she fell in love with Emily. And how they were all part of a group of artists and best friends that circulated around San Francisco in the forties going to the same nightclubs and Emily was singer named Spike. And the setting is very important to the novella, because we really feel like San Francisco of the forties has come to life and basically that’s it. And then we maybe later we’ll go back to what happens in the end. But that’s the gist of what’s the novella’s all about.
So there are several things that I loved about it. I loved the characters, I loved the setting, the writing was beautiful, the romance that develops between Haskel and Emily was super great and cute and adorable.
Renay: I loved the friendships that the women had.
Ana: Absolutely. They were friends with another couple, Bab and Franny. And friends with…who is missing? And Helen, who at that point was still studying to become a lawyer and was a dancer at Mona’s, which was the famous club. And Helen as it turns out is the old lady from the start.
So what did you think of the novella, Renay?
Renay: I thought the sense of place was really, really good. You really felt like you were in the city at this time, with this looming fear that was cast over you because you were afraid to get caught being who you were.
Ana: Oh yes. I forgot to mention that all of these characters were queer. So important, probably the most essential detail of the fucking novel! [laughs]
Renay: And you see the consequences of what it means to be queer at this point in time. It talks about some of the laws of the time, where apparently you had to be wearing three women’s garments, to be considered not crossdressing and thus deviant. And apparently the police could just check?!
Ana: I know! So gross.
Renay: Ew. Things I didn’t know that I learned reading this novella. And I mentioned the friendships, but I really, really loved the friendships that we see and how lovely the people to each other. And we see it when a group of them go out to an island or another part of the city. Frannie and Babs have a house guest, which I think is somebody’s niece. And she was all afraid that she was gonna be going and staying with some stodgy old aunt and be bored all the time, but it turns out that they just welcome her into the group.
Ana: And she was really into science.
Renay: Yeah, and they all have tons of fun together and I just loved the friendships. They were so great. I liked the romance, too. Although it developed pretty fast. Like, true love forever fast.
Ana: Very fast.
Renay: But I think that is more a side-effect of this being a novella, that we can’t see a lot of the stuff that might have occurred to develop their relationship if this had been like a novel.
Ana: Well but after one night together they were already living together.
Renay: Yeah, the book comments on it, though.
Ana: But things—I’m just saying things moved fast for them anyway. It has a fairytale feel to it, especially with how it ends, and I guess that’s part of a fairytale framing. They’re like, “Oh their love story was meant to be”. Which is great. I don’t really mind that. I had other problems.
Renay: [laughs] Other prob—Oh, the problems are coming out! One of the problems I had was that I thought that the magic in the book was just sort of left on the table.
Ana: Yeah, it was just like so underdeveloped, and very conveniently used. Like at the moment where they need it most, conveniently, the main character who had never mentioned it before could do magic and magic that’s like really heavy magic. [laughs] Not like, “Oh ,I’m just gonna lit this candle with my fingers,” more like, “let’s both of us go live in a painting forever.”
Renay: It’s definitely a fairy tale. So the whole thing is that Haskel is still married to a dude and I got the read on it that Haskel might be bisexual. That’s how I took it.
Renay: While Emily was just straight up gay. I really liked how it was done. Back when I used to identify as bisexual I always got really mad that people would like cast us as promiscuous or whatever else and that doesn’t happen here. You just get to have this bisexual choosing to be in this separate relationship, because her husband is super abusive and a drunk. And takes advantage of her.
Ana: But when this story started he had been gone for four years. And then he comes back. There is a very violent scene between him and her. He beats her up and then she thinks he’s gone for good after that. And then she goes out with Emily one night, dancing, and Emily’s dressed as a dude so that could go out dancing together without raising any alarms because it was illegal to be two women together. And then this dude comes out of nowhere, and then gets killed. And then all of a sudden not only these two women have to fight an entire society that is against them, one of them now is charged with murder. Which was an accident by the way, she just pushed him. Well, she—well he was kind of drunk and he fell in front of a car! And that’s my second problem with this novella, which is a problem that I used to have with romance novels all the time. It’s just feels like a last minute added wrench into a couple’s relationship that really needn’t to be there?
Renay: But if it hadn’t been there why would they have to go hide in the painting?
Ana: Do they need to go hide in the painting? [laughs] No! I know that that’s the story, cause then the solution for them to escape a murder charge is not like escape and go somewhere else, or go hide in the United States. No, their escape was for Haskel to do this magic spell left by her grandmother, where she uses some sort of magic paint to paint themselves into a painting that is then to be kept safe by their friends until they are all dead and then they can be released by opening the frame. So although there is this idea that they have lived for decades together happily, within that painting, is that really a happy story?
Renay: When I went and read some reviews when I was trying to see if I was just being a curmudgeon about it. The story implicitly tells you that the painting or the place that they’re going to when they get magicked into it is good. A magical version of San Francisco, maybe, a more magical version, where they can be together without these problems. For some readers that might be a step too far on the assumption level, so it might not work as well, instead of getting to grow old together with their friends, they’re all by themselves, isolated in a painting. Because it’s not clear what happens to them once they go into the painting.
Ana: No, they didn’t know either. They were just making this choice because they felt they had no other option. Aand I think that lack of option didn’t feel very organic to the story. It’s weird for me to be saying that, I know, because like in life you have no control over circumstances either, do you? You don’t. But I didn’t like the progression of this story to murder. I dunno.
But I see for example Babs and Frannie living together, they made it, as a couple. So I couldn’t see why they couldn’t have done that. The only thing that needed to be added was an external factor, even worse than being persecuted for being queer, which was then the murder of a guy that comes outta nowhere, and that they didn’t even commit.
It’s not that I disliked it. I really liked it. I’m happy that I read it. It’s beautifully written. And I mean the revenge story is awesome and how everything comes together in the end and she leaves the painting and we know that when the guy goes to open the painting all of his money was spent on nothing. And then two women will be released into death. And this is another thing. So they are living their lives in this San Francisco, and they have no idea what’s gonna happen to them and then are living there and then one day poof they are gone, because someone opened the painting. I guess that’s true to life! Because you are one day here and one you are—poof—gone.
Renay: You had a lot of feelings.
Ana: I had a lot of feelings and I don’t know how to express them properly apparently. I guess it’s a personal thing then with type of story.
Renay: Yeah, because everybody’s like, “This is so beautiful, what a wonderful love story, what a wonderful fairy tale.” Yeah, I totally see those things, and I liked it okay, too, I think I gave it like 3.5 stars. I mostly gave it the .5 because I loved the twist at the end. Jjust the creativeness, like, “Oh, they’re in a painting, and oh they came up with this way to like boobytrap the painting and this guy gets his just desserts for being kinda gross!” You know that part—it’s cool.
I also thought it was weird that as the novella goes along, it establishes that Franny is magic but it never does the same for Haskel and just pulls it out at the very end, and I’m like, “Why did you establish this character is magic and not this one that is your main character who you’re gonna do this thing with later?” Cause it wouldn’t have been hard. I was just very confused about that choice. If they were already setting up Franny as magic, what stopped them from also just including Haskel in that frame? And I also get kind of had a problem with the details that it inserted where it was just so well-researched and picked up a lot of things from history, and put them in even though they just felt shoehorned, sort of? Like there was this whole part with this painter or artist from…
Ana: Diego Rivera?
Renay: And his wife.
Ana: Frida Kahlo.
Renay: And I’m just like, wait this seems familiar, why is this familiar? Obviously, this is familiar for a reason, but it totally tossed me out of the story and made me so paranoid like “Did I – am I – am I thinking of the right–?” that I left the story to go to Google. And that’s not really what you want somebody to do when they’re reading your book. You don’t want them to leave your book to do other research, because your story is so well-researched and has so many great details in it. So that was my problem, I kept getting thrown out by all the detail.
Ana: I didn’t mind that. I thought it was a nice added tidbit, especially because I watched Coco recently and it also had Frida Kahlo in it.
Renay: I mean I don’t mind that it had it in it. It just felt so abrupt; kinda like the magic did. I think my main criticism is: I just feel like the magical got short shrift. I could have read a whole novel of this, with you know more world building and more exploration of the magic and how the women use their magic. I would have also been fine if it had no magic at all.
Ana: Yes, like it could have been just a historical novel.
Renay: But then of course your whole framing device doesn’t work.
Ana: No. And do they have to escape San Francisco; maybe that could have been the bittersweet ending. They manage to leave and live happily after.
Renay: I guess I’m just a picky person about queer books. Because I should have loved this, and I really did love the relationship parts, like that’s not at all what my complaint is about. My complaints are mostly about the magic parts and how suddenly and surprisingly the narrative just turns on this really sharp moment and everything changes and suddenly magic’s everywhere and they’re changing their whole lives over the course of like a week or something.
Ana: I didn’t have a sense of, “they need to do this or else,” either. I didn’t have that sense of impending doom that needed to have done such an extreme choice. But then again, I am not a queer person in the forties.
Renay: I also think that it’s just me and how I don’t like older queer narratives set in the past. I think that’s probably a part of my problem.
Ana: Is it because of the heavy history surrounding it?
Ana: But I guess in a way it’s a good way to come toward that, by giving them a happy ending and by showing other happy couples doing well.
Renay: And I think it’s also an interesting thought experiment. Because you can debate on what happens to them so they go into the painting, so are they in a painting? Is the painting like an entirely new magical San Francisco. Is it an alternate reality?
Ana: Is the painting just a gateway to another world? Cause that’s how I chose to read it.
Renay: Yeah, that’s how I chose to read it but I think you can have that conversation and that’s very, very interesting. Although I did feel the doom. I didn’t feel the doom so much about Emily being potentially on the hook for murder, I felt the doom when Helen came and told Haskel, “PS you’re on the hook for all of your husband’s finances.” That’s when I felt the doom. I’m like, “Shit, run!”
Ana: This guy’s the worst. Literal worst.
Renay: Some novellas are good as novellas and I really like them as novellas and then some novellas I think, “This should have been a novel.” Like you have the characterization and the worldbuilding and the ideas for a full novel. Whatever the word is for the feeling where you want more of the thing and you want more explanation and you’re not getting it because it’s just a standalone thing.
Renay: So how many space bees would you give this?
Ana: I would give it three.
Renay: I’m gonna give it three and a jar of honey. This is what I gave it when I finished it. I think I read something by Ellen Klages before, a few years ago, when she was nominated for a Hugo for something?
Ana: I did read The Green Glass Sea. I know it was super recommended to me and I enjoyed it, but I was actually not like super in love with it. I like her writing a whole lot, but there is something missing for me.
Renay: The thing I read by her was Wakulla Springs by her and Andy Duncan, and I think it had the same problem for me where it was like a fantasy, but the fantasy was sort of painted on, and it was more like a historical piece of short fiction, and I think that’s what it is. I really love her writing, but I want her stories to be more fantastical than they end up being.
Ana: Yeah, and that’s magical realism someways, right? And we’ve talked about this before, how I just really don’t jive with magical realism that much. Possibly because of that; cause there is always something that I’m questioning and asking, “But why?” and “How?”
Renay: I wanna finish a book with questions. I like doing that. But I think if my questions take over my analysis of how I think of the novel; if all I have is questions and I can’t really take away stuff from the fantastical parts or something, that mak me think about fantasy or magic differently? I tend to have a problem. I don’t know if that makes sense, but just like you, I have issues but I don’t know how to put them into words. But like as a piece of historical fiction about queer women, this is aces and I highly recommend it if you like things where women who are queer get to have happy ever afters. I think it’s great for that.
Renay: It’s time for recommendations. What piece of media did you like that had a strong sense of place or a subtle magic or a magic-adjacent undertone.
Ana: Okay, I’m gonna recommend a book that won the Newbery medal a few years back, and it’s called When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I don’t wanna say a lot, but it’s set in New York in the 70s. I remember very clearly the sense of place, but it also has an element of time-travel. A I’m not gonna say anything else because we’ll spoil the book.
Renay: I read that book and I loved it. It was so wonderful.
Ana: It’s great, right?
Renay: Even though it’s a book for kids, definitely. I would highly recommend it for adults as well.
Ana: Oh yeah, I don’t even read it as a book for kids, to be honest. Although technically it is.
Renay: Some people would. I like to warn people when something is aimed at certain age groups. That way they go in with compassion in mind.
Ana: And what’s your rec?
Renay: So my recommendation is sort of both. It’s both a strong sense of place and a kind of a magic element to it. It is The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine.
Ana: Aaah, that’s a great choice!
Renay: And it is a book about a group of twelve sisters living in 1920s New York, and it is reworking the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. These girls live in a house with their father. Their mother is gone. And their father basically keeps them bottled up and every night they sneak out and they go dancing. And it’s sort of like run like a military operation with the lead sister Jo, like, shepherding her sisters to and from these dance halls. It doesn’t have magic explicitly, it just sort of feels magical, the way that these girls go out and the lives that they lead when they dance and the people that they meet and how, when things start to fall apart, they all land on their feet? And I think it’s important to say that, although it’s kind of a spoiler. But I think it’s important to mention that it’s not a tragedy. There are sad things that happen, but it’s not a tragedy at all, and it just feels magical to me. Even though there’s no magic in it.
Ana: I think it’s the writing and the storytelling that gives that sense; that makes it feel like a fairy tale.
Renay: And it does a really good job. The ending—I bawled my eyes out. It’s super beautiful, I highly recommended especially if you like relationships between sisters who are also friends.
Ana: Yeah, it was so nice! The book I loved it! And it has a great romance, too.
Renay: Yes it does.
Ana: Another successful Vault episode—in the Vault.
Ana: Thank you so much, patrons.
Renay: Patrons, we really appreciate you supporting us and letting us do these extra episodes. We really love the chance to get to talk about older media or in this case, newer media. We really, really appreciate you. So much.
Ana: And remember that if you like this Vault episode, you can help us decide the discussion topics by supporting us on Patreon. We are there as Fangirl Happy Hour. We we would be super grateful for your support.
Renay: If you have any thoughts about this episode or anything else that happens to cross your mind, you can send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also come and chat with us on twitter, too, at @fangirlpod. Our segment break music is by Chuki Beats and BoxCat Games.
Ana: Our show art is by Ira and our transcripts are by Susan. You can read all the available transcripts at fangirlhappyhour.com.
Renay: Drink some water, and if you haven’t had a snack recently, go do so. Don’t neglect your blood sugar.
Ana: And since this book is so good with friendships, don’t neglect your friends. Maybe send them a message today and tell them that you love them.
Renay: Thanks for listening, space bees!
Ana: See you next episode!
Renay: Woah! [raspberries]
Ana: [laughs] That was some ugly shit!
Renay: I just totally – I just totally forgot how to make words!
Renay: I was gonna say something, but I lost it! [laughs]
Ana: This is starting really well.
Renay: Already doing great. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Renay: I don’t know what – it was very strange.
Ana: Was it passing strange?
Renay: Ha ha, very funny.
Ana: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
Automated voice: Here is some information about The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
Renay: It’s so British.
Renay: No matter how annoying a White man catcalling you in the street is, do not push him into traffic. [silence] What?! You said you needed advice!