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Poppy’s Progress and Poppy’s Return, by Pat Rossier.

November 19, 2013

Poppy’s Progress and Poppy’s Return, by Pat Rossier.   North Melbourne : Spinifex, 2002 and 2004.

Two warm novels about a New Zealand woman who is nearing 50, and those she loves.

Lots of books focus on coming of age stories, but few deal with women moving through middle age and becoming old.  Pat Rossier, a New Zealander, gives us a pair of novels about a woman moving on with her life in the second half of her life.  Never glib or moralistic, Rossier shows us a woman finding ways to negotiate her challenges successfully and find happiness in unexpected places.

Poppy Sinclair thinks of herself as an ordinary woman, but she admits that maybe the fact she is a lesbian sets her apart.  She has a job she loves teaching children. Her relationship with her parents and her brother’s family are good, and she has a supportive group of lesbian friends.  But she is still lonely and grieving over the death of her beloved, long-time partner in a sailing accident ten years earlier.  She and those around her are changing.   A visitor in her home might turn into a lover, and she must nurse her dying father.   She must make decisions about who she is and what she wants from life, some of the same choices many of us face as we age.

Rossier writes about the death of loved ones in Poppy’s life with dignity and grace.  In the first book, Poppy’s partner’s sudden death left her reeling.  In the second, death is even more prominent as Poppy goes to England to nurse her father in his lingering death at the same time she struggles with the rest of her life.  Poppy walks the fine line between facing the realities of illness and death and finding paths for her own survival.  Readers see her struggles and the small nuggets of love and joy she finds in caring for him.  Whether or not we follow her example, the fact that she can find strength and joy makes her story hopeful, not depressing.  The book helped me begin to see that being there for those who are dying need not be a totally grime endeavor.

 The feminist movement plays only a minor role in Poppy’s life, despite Rossier’s long involvement in it.  In the 70s, her housemates argued about feminist theory, but she preferred to do concrete tasks such as taking women to airport so they could get an abortion.  She is most involved in feminism when New Zealand was considering removing homosexuality from the list of criminal offences, and she came face-to-face with the hatred of those who opposed the change.  The passage of the law allowed Poppy and her friends to be more open about their sexual preference and to form a strong community.   Rossier is able to bring readers into that lesbian community and shows us its interworkings.   Such communities exist in many cities and are an important, seldom-recognized part of lesbian identity and life.  Poppy has been alone for years, but she was still part of a lesbian community.  When the possibility of sexuality reappears, she feels both attraction and the need to go slowly.

Poppy is also close to both her parents and to her brother’s family.  Their stories are a critical part of hers.  Rossier uses them to gently introduce ethnic diversity into her books.  For a time Poppy’s mother, divorced from her father, lives with an Indigenous New Zealander.  Her brother is married to a woman whose family had originally come from China, and their son is intent on learning more about that part of his heritage. Poppy ensures that he is able to do that with the support of his parents.  One of Poppy’s challenges is helping her niece and nephew without alienating their parents.

Nature is important for Poppy,  In good times and bad, she finds nurturance there.  Rossier’s books are full of wonderful descriptions of both New Zealand and England, where Poppy goes to be with her father.  I have been able to learn a little about Australia from my reading, but New Zealand was new for me.  I spent much time on GoggleEarth, trying to find photographs of the marvelous locations which Rossier described.

I heartily recommend this book to readers, lesbian and straight, who want an enjoyable read that takes them into situations that may be new to them.  And especiallyto readers who are women moving beyond middle age.  Both books are better read together.

Thanks to Spinfex for sending me these books to review.

For a more literary portrayal of lesbian community life, see Finola Moorehead’s wonderful Remember the Tarantlla.

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