I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked up Karen X. Tulchinsky’s first novel Love Ruins Everything (2000), but it certainly wasn’t what I imagined. Let’s get this straight (or should I say queer, since if this novel is one thing, it is very, very queer): Love Ruins Everything is an unabashedly cheesy novel about lesbian love and gay HIV/AIDS activism in the 9os. Although, I’m still not certain whether Tulchinsky knew it was quite so cheesy at the time that she was writing it. I’m also not certain how exactly I feel about this novel. The problem for me was that it didn’t really fit into either one of two categories: 1) a full-on guilty pleasure, trashy, melodramatic lesbian love story; 2) a serious, well-written novel about the friendships and connections between gay men and lesbians, and their joint HIV/AIDS work. I was totally on board to enjoy the silly melodrama of Nomi, an ex-pat Torontonian lesbian living in San Fransisco, who is dumped by her girlfriend Sapphire at the beginning of the novel. I also could have enjoyed the campy, stereotypical members of Nomi’s Jewish family. In fact, the overbearing Jewish mother-daughter phone conversations were one of my favourite parts of the book. Nomi also has an uncle who’s a small time criminal in the Jewish Mafia; there’s definitely stereotypes and caricatures at work here, but I saw them as campy rather than offensive or reductive.
The problem is that the novel takes itself too seriously. After introducing Nomi’s life, Tulchinsky steers away from her to focus on her gay cousin Henry, whose life you simply can’t look at in the same way that you do Nomi’s. He’s just been gay-bashed when he’s introduced and then finds out that his HIV has just developed into full-blown AIDS. You can’t really have fun with Henry like you can with Nomi. It’s not that I wouldn’t have welcomed this kind of turn in a different novel; it’s actually a great idea to juxtapose the two cousins’ situations and how they negotiate being queer in their large boisterous family. But I couldn’t continue reading the book in the way I had been up until that point, which was having fun reading / making fun of it. The tone of the novel up until that point had been light and frivolous: Sapphire suggests to Nomi that they become non-monogamous, a suggestion that is quickly revealed to be a way to ease Nomi into a breakup. Sapphire quickly hooks up with a guy, dumps Nomi, but is then dumped by him; she goes back to Nomi, the two women sleep together, and Sapphire rejects Nomi again when the guy comes back to her. I was willing to overlook the evil-femme-bisexual-dumps-lesbian-for-a-man trope because it was all so ridiculous and melodramatic.
But Henry’s situation is just not ridiculous at all, and so I found myself having to try to take the novel seriously, which is a bit hard to do. The writing isn’t the greatest, and frequently tells rather than shows the reader details about characters and settings; Tulchinsky also often uses clichés and gives a play-by-play of what the characters are doing that isn’t interesting or relevant to the action. The plot is similarly contrived: Nomi finds out her cousin is gay-bashed through her ancient crush Julie, whom she just happens to run into at the gay bar when she arrives back home in Toronto, when she just happens to be broken-hearted and in search of new love. Julie just happens to be working with Henry on a project to reveal a conspiracy theory that HIV was actually created by the American government as a biological weapon. I have a healthy dose of mistrust for governments, but as far as I know, this theory doesn’t have a lot of credibility. I really couldn’t symphathize with the action of the novel after this plot element was introduced. Also, Tulchinksy skipped over the juicy romance parts with Nomi and her new love Julie, which was a bit disappointing. The only part I really liked about the novel was the lesbian melodrama, and it got overshadowed by the gay male activism.
Love Ruins Everything has a sequel, Love and Other Ruins, and I’m not sure if I want to read it. On the one hand, the characters are totally endearing and lovable; on the other, I can only stand the cheesiness and poor writing in certain doses and contexts. That said, I do kind of want to find out what happens, which I guess says something about Tulchinsky’s skill as a storyteller. It’s probable Tulchinsky’s abilities as a writer have improved with time. She’s also the editor of a few collections of erotica, which might showcase her talents better than novel writing and I would definitely be willing to check those out. I guess next time I pick up something by her I’ll know what to expect. Hopefully after this review, so will you.