One of the most demeaning effects homophobia has had on me is to try to convince me, from a young age, that we in the LGBT umbrella were cut off from the sweeter, more innocent sides of the human experience. Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton gives the f/f romance world a gift — a sensual, emotional story with modern sensibilities, pairings, and politics, but a definitely old-fashioned feeling that’s usually the sole purview of cis women being romanced by cis men.
The two-second pitch is that Poppy’s estranged childhood best friend Rosalyn comes back to the village, meaning the two of them finally have to deal with a lot of unresolved stuff. Rosalyn is incredibly sexy and exciting but also a little aggressive for Poppy’s chill, dainty village life — for example, when a local business owner tries to bully a village woman into shutting down her craft fair, Rosalyn jumps to her defense at the town meeting far more stridently than these folks are used to. She usually does the right thing, but is scary about it and often insulting, including to people and traditions Poppy cares about. She’s the hardened one whereas Poppy is the ultimate optimist.
There were many themes close to my heart in this one: how there’s often a vast gulf in the coming out experience between someone who has a lot of social support and someone who’s already disliked or unpopular for other reasons, the ins and outs of running a tiny restaurant (did I mention Poppy is a chef? This is such a Shira book), and strong cultural traditions — in this case, it’s a Welsh setting by a Welsh author. Bits of Welsh are scattered through the text, and traditions pepper the book in a way that lightly immerses you. There was a scene at Poppy’s friend’s wedding where I teared up because everyone was singing some beloved old Welsh hymn even though I’m not Welsh and didn’t know the tune, because I can identify with what that means, and was thinking of my own culture. Poppy’s non-romantic relationships also play a key role in the book — her family especially the female relatives like her sister, mother, and grandmother, her best friend (a straight guy, and a pretty cool one!), and other women in the village.
Poppy may as well be a 21st century Anne of Green Gables or other costume drama small-town girl, full of buoyancy and enthusiasm, as well as love for her village and its people. But by making her this, the author doesn’t rob her of her sexuality, and that’s what makes this so wonderful. A woman’s sexual–not just romantic but sexual–attraction to another woman is depicted as innocent and wholesome. Do you have any idea how fucking healing that is? For Poppy to come back from college to her village with a couple of ex-girlfriends’ worth of experience under her belt and still be covered all over with the tinsel of “this character is An Innocent” is revolutionary.
Also, women’s attraction to other women is unique from person to person and Poppy’s — like Dahlia Adler’s Frankie from Out on Good Behavior — is very similar to mine (curves! softness!), so I appreciated that on a personal level as well. There’s more than one scene where she’s quietly fascinated by Rosalyn’s breasts, without being portrayed as any less cute and charming herself for these feelings, and I can say right here and now that if I’d have had a book like this to read when I was a teenager I would have grown up happier and felt way more validated.
Warning that this is one of those books where if people actually communicated on page 20 instead of page 200, things would go a lot easier for them, but I found the setting, characters, and story so delightful that I could put up with Poppy’s occasional “don’t you know you’re in a romance novel, silly????” denseness. Just know that going in, in case it makes your decision for you. The ending is super satisfying.
Definitely check this out if you’re craving the validation that women’s love for other women is still sweet no matter how sexual it gets and still fits in a charming old British village with plenty of greenery and tea-sets, or crave f/f pairings when you read L.M. Montgomery.