Eve, the spunky 19-year-old protagonist of Zoe Whittall’s debut novel Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007), is a 90s rebel girl, screaming along with Kathleen Hanna as she rides her bike down Montreal’s Ste Catherines street in her silver spray-painted doc martens. Not despite, but because of her irreverent, dead-pan comments such as “I don’t have bad self-esteem, I’m realistic,” Eve is instantly a likable character who makes you root for her throughout Bottle Rocket Hearts; as the writer over at The CanLit Thing remarks: “Whittall has the incredible knack for writing characters I want to be friends with.” As a reader you hope it won’t be Eve’s heart that is exploded/exploited by older, less naïve women’s callousness, but given Eve’s whole-hearted jump into big city lesbian love, an intact heart seems like too much to ask for. Maybe things are better with scars anyway. Whittall certainly sends Eve on a journey, which her street-wise roommate, whom everyone calls Seven, aptly sums up:
isn’t Eve just a fucking sweetheart? A little piece of pie. A cupcake. Usually girls like her drive me nuts, you know, so excitable. Bad tippers, high pitch gigglers. That’s what she was like at first. But it’s like every day she wakes up a little more hard-core. Anyway, it’s been really hard to watch her, like, go through this shit, for the first time.
Seven’s talking about a specific event, which hits you like a cheap blow in the gut three-quarters of the way through the novel, but this excerpt also applies to the earlier developments in Eve’s journey from her parents’ house in the suburbs of Dorval into the queer heart of Montreal. Eve’s story doesn’t follow a linear, straight-forward structure, though; Whittall plunges the reader head first into a tense hospital scene in the opening of the book and finally leads us back to the hospital in the final chapter. Meant to be disorienting, the first chapter leaves you with a strong impression of Eve—she tells us that “Intellectually, non-monogamy made complete sense; emotionally, it felt like sandpaper across [her] eyelids.” You are left, however, with many questions about the people in Eve’s life and how exactly she has ended up feeling like a freak and an outsider in Montreal General’s waiting room.
Of course, the lengthy background to this monumental first scene begins in chapter two, where Eve introduces her girlfriend Della, a sexy boyish dyke who’s ten years Eve’s senior, “just this side of crazy,” and (un)available enough to sustain her lovers’ attention and interest. Eve is battling with jealousy in her new polyamorous-because-it’s-trendy relationship. She hopes the score will be: “Jealousy: 0 Me: 1”; unfortunately for Eve, the reality of the situation is more like “Jealousy: 10 Me: -10.” Eve soon learns that the queer women’s community in Montreal is not quite as big as she thought, and she and Della are constantly running into Della’s ex, whom Eve refuses to name and refers to as “XXXX.” The evil ex, so evil she deserves four exes! Eve also moves in with two queers and is enveloped into a larger community. One of these roommates is Rachel, a McGill graduate student who is a serious writer/poet, activist and a dyke mentor for Eve, and the other is Seven, a girly boy who is tougher than nails, a drug dealer, HIV positive, and in the end an aspiring playwright.
Whittall deftly weaves politics into the personal of Eve’s life, both queer and feminist politics and Quebecois/Francophone ones. 1995, for those of you not from Canada or familiar with Canadian politics, was one of the two times in Canadian history where Quebec residents voted in a referendum to decide whether their province would separate from the rest of Canada. Quebeckers very narrowly—50.58%—voted “No” to this proposition that would have irrevocably changed the landscape of Canada. Who says Canadian politics are boring! To call Francophone and Anglophone relations in this period tense, then, would be quite the understatement. This tension is mirrored cleverly in Eve and Della’s relationship; while Della technically has both an English and a French parent, her loyalties are entirely Francophone and separatist. Anglophone Eve, from the conservative, English-dominated Dorval is the enemy. Eve’s reluctance to speak French because she is self-conscious doesn’t help the situation. In contrast to her linguistic apathy, Eve throws herself into queer feminist politics at Concordia University, organizing a feminist memorial/protest for the Montreal massacre and writing papers about how sex work and feminism are not mutually exclusive—a position which her high school friend Jenny, who has started working as a stripper, tells Eve doesn’t quite agree with, sending her friend’s naïve new-found feminism for a spin.
Whittall has a great eye for the details of the queer mid-90s, from the fashion—those dykes with bleached tips wearing so-called wife beaters with “boy beater” scrawled on the front—to the music: Eve bikes “propelled by the excellent new Luscious Jackson CD.” She also carefully investigates the nuances of Montreal, especially for an Anglophone like Eve, in the crowd of twenty-something activists and university students. Whittall is clearly familiar enough with this crowd to be both affectionate and critical, cleverly manoeuvring between an ironic, cynical tone and one that has genuine fondness for these people and their sometimes silly, sometimes profound ways of living. To borrow the image Whittall uses in her title, reading this novel is like time-travelling to the queer 90s on a giant bottle rocket: real, homemade, rough, and ultimately, exhilarating. In other words, Bottle Rocket Hearts is one of my new favourite novels.