Fishwives, or On Being the Women Your Mothers Warned You About
Sally Bellerose’s Fishwives begins with immediate intimacy: Ninety-year-old Jackie wakes before sunrise due to hip pain, and her eighty-nine-year-old wife, Regina, joins her on the sofa, fuzzy pink slippers and all, establishing the couple’s comfortable, bickering-yet-fond dynamic. This opening scene sets the stage for a book where the present functions as a hazy, imprecise framework for vivid recollections of the characters’ decades-worth of history, time spent together more than apart. At one point, Regina muses “elderly is still a shock” and it’s clear that for her and Jackie, the past is far clearer than the present.
Fishwives serves real tenderness with wry humor and understanding. This is particularly showcased in a 1955 memory of when Jackie visits Regina at her parents’ home and Regina delivers a rapid-fire monologue on coming to terms with her sexuality. After Regina’s wailed declaration “It’s all so impossible!” the two women “… stare at each other so tragically that Jackie grins. She thinks how lucky she was to get this bullshit over when she was very young.”
The dry, lesbian-dad–style jokes offset the characters’ stress surrounding the grim reality of aging in America.
The author’s sense of humor is further sprinkled throughout the novel as in “The first time Jackie said, ‘You’re all right’ was the late 1950s. It means ‘Thank you’ or ‘Nice tits’ or ‘I love you’” or, when speaking of asking for help from the neighborhood children they helped raise, “I suppose we should save our favors for falls and heart attacks. But it’s the dead Christmas trees that drive you crazy.” The dry, lesbian-dad-style jokes offset the characters’ stress surrounding the grim reality of aging in America without a secure financial safety net.
But Bellerose also tackles the subjects of sexuality, gender, race, and mortality, sometimes with a heavy hand and always with respect. She emphasizes the importance of chosen family with Jackie and Regina’s fond remembrances of their tight-knit community of choice. There are many characters in Fishwives, and Bellerose takes care to infuse them all with warmth. Jackie and Regina feel relatable as they go about their fateful day, reminiscing.
Jackie and Regina, the titular fishwives, are exactly the type of women their mothers warned them about, and they are joyful and unrepentant about it. Jackie speaks to the lack of happy endings for lesbians during the 1950s: She “doesn’t know any girls who have pulled off living happily ever after. She’s not sure how that would look or if she’d want it if she could have it.” Although she and Regina had no elders, no examples of how to live a lesbian fairy tale ending, they forge their own path, regardless.
Despite its flaws—the characters and timelines sometimes tangle in muddying ways--Fishwives is a critical addition to the body of literature. Both an imperfect character study and an homage to the quiet warmth of a lifetime’s worth of love, both platonic and romantic, the novel charmed me; I won’t soon forget Regina and Jackie, or even the lives and worries of the neighborhood children they took under their wings. With Fishwives, Bellerose lovingly creates a realm of immersive humanity with characters you can’t help but root for and care about.
Susanne Salehi is a queer writer and Memphis expat currently residing in Atlanta with her wife and two cats. Her labels are INFP, Taurus, and 4w5, and she spends her free time hiking and doing jigsaw puzzles. She works in advancement and daydreams about rugby and writing retreats. You can follow her Instagram @bookishcreature if you need more pictures of cats and books in your life.