Some of the best loved stories are made to disappoint us. More than any other genre, romance causes us, as readers, to bring our expectations and ideals of love to the forefront and, more often than not, shows us that the lovelorn never learn from their misdoings and continuously get what they want despite not being very deserving.
But what happens when one’s perception of attraction doesn’t match that of the majority, and one makes the mistake of throwing themselves into something they cannot follow through on? Such is the debacle at the center of They Say Sarah, the stinging debut novel by author and professor Pauline Delabroy-Allard translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
Taking place in both a riotous past and an uncertain present between Paris and Trieste, this book finds an unnamed female narrator dissecting her role as a single mother, an ideal daughter, and a faithful lover in a world that threatens to take everything away from her. She finds a special but dangerous redemption for herself in Sarah, a friend of a friend and a famed Philharmonic violinist, bringing with her a reckless abandon and a penchant for spontaneity that will leave nobody unaffected in the end: “It’s all about the exact moment when the match flares, the exact moment when that piece of wood becomes fire.”
Except, from the very beginning, we are made aware of the fate that awaits these two women before they know it exists, when the narrator wakes up next to Sarah in her sickbed. Thus unearths a fight against the clocks of time and the body for them to forge a complete connection before reality sets in.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true romance without intrigue, which is where the narrator plays a pivotal, albeit manipulative, role in her own discourse. The author’s choice to leave her nameless unveils not only her ability to fly under the radar when she least suspects she’ll need to, but a running theme throughout the novel: anonymity. It often feels like the contemporary queer narrative is at odds with its own perspective, which is why so many books like it present people who cannot give to themselves what they give to others.
The sad truth is that this often leads queer people into a life of obscurity for everybody else’s sake except their own. It takes a person like Sarah, obliterating our safety net, for us to realize how better off we are not playing into people’s unrealistic expectations of something that does not concern them: “She thinks it’s funny that I get embarrassed when she comes too close to me… she says oh it’s fine who gives a damn about your students, we’re educating them, that’s a good thing, isn’t it.”
In 165 pages, Delabroy-Allard displays a command over language and artistry that can hold its own next to the James Baldwin’s of canonized queer literature, waxing poetic on the triumphs (“This spring is a party that goes on and on. My body can’t get over it”) and apprehensions (“She resents me because she can’t suddenly just love me in peace”) of a passion that moves through us faster than can be kept up with.
As a reviewer, if I had no limitations, I would quote about half the book; it’s a rare gift to witness the work of an author who is so unhesitant in her choices and gives her characters space to declare their inner turmoils without interference.
As much as I found so many little things to appreciate in this novel, I would not hold it against any reader who is jarred by its unconventional and experimental structure. At its heart, They Say Sarah is a quiet meditation on the permanence of human connection in an unideal world that never understates its capacity to overthink itself.
It can be very frustrating to see the narrator run away from her problems and endlessly muse about how the one thing she had for herself beckoned to be returned to its sender too soon. Still, it’s no reason to disregard the book’s special prowess.
The lost souls that lead us through it are a conduit for humanity’s universal need to accept people in our lives as they are and put our egos away while doing it: “We made love. Almost the same as a crime, when it comes down to it.” Regardless if novels that broach queerness are targeted toward a specific audience, at the end of the day, desire is universal, and human foils transcend sexuality no matter how much people think the opposite.
Jake Levyns is a poet and theatre artist currently in his final year at SUNY Plattsburgh. He served as an editorial assistant on the upcoming sixteenth issue of Saranac Review and has his first publication in Issue 8.1 of Gandy Dancer. He lives on Long Isla