Recently at a Gay and Lesbian coffeehouse, I read a brief excerpt from _Lover_ to a group of predominantly Lesbian friends. Afterward, several of them approached me, grinning from ear to ear and asking, "What was that funny, terrific book you read?"
Good question. To call Bertha Harris's _Lover_ a "novel" doesn't quite do it justice. The nonlinear narrative, fluid identities, and general postmodern sensibility guarantee that plot and character, those two mainstays of novelistic form, will quickly fall by the wayside.
So what is _Lover_? Bertha Harris calls this book a "tap-dance," a "pleasure dome," and an act of seduction. I would add, more trivially, that it's a Lesbian-centered family history, focusing on the relations of a matrix of women characters. That doesn't do justice to the book either, but it comes closer.
Ultimately, _Lover_ can best be described as a dazzling literary performance, designed to give pleasure to the reader. Some of the pleasure is embedded deep within the text, in the connections between seemingly unrelated vignettes; Harris provides a helpful guide to these connections in the "family tree" (actually more like tangled vines) that opens the novel.
But there's a great deal of surface pleasure, too, and it's no less intense or profound. _Lover_ can be enjoyed in the moment for its droll wit, its crystalline prose, and most of all, its (largely) unabashed expression of sexual desire. It's no accident that Bertha Harris co-authored _The Joy of Lesbian Sex_.
So why isn't _Lover_ better known? There are several reasons, most of them connected to the strange politics of the publishing (and reviewing) world. _Lover_ was originally published in paperback, at a time when paperback fiction was deemed inherently unworthy of a mainstream book review; and it was an explicitly Lesbian novel, at a time when Lesbian fiction was even more marginalized from the literary mainstream than it is now.
Only a few people, mostly Lesbian separatists, gave _Lover_ much notice when it was first published (and the publicity campaign, or relative lack thereof, probably didn't help). And when Daughters Inc., the novel's original publishers, went bankrupt, _Lover_ disappeared completely from view--until NYU press revived the work in 1993, complete with a new (and, for me, indispensable) preface by Harris herself.
Harris's controversial story of the rise and fall of Daughters Inc.--and of her own career as a Lesbian writer--provides an "overture" to the book, stating specific themes of the work and giving a specific personal, political and psychological context for the action to come. With this new preface, _Lover_ stands out as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature.
In all likelihood, your public library doesn't have a copy of _Lover_. That's all the more reason to buy a copy of your own.