Book review: Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

 Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. New York: Fawcett Crest, ©1969

The original title of this book is "A Place for Us," and the real name of Isabel Miller is Alma Routsong.

Have you ever browsed a pile of books in Booksale and a book just called to you to read it? I have found many great books this way (and some not-so-great books), and this is one of the lucky finds that was good. The first thing that caught my attention is the cover which featured a painting of two women reaching out to each other, which reminded me of Margaret Atwood books for some reason. I began reading shortly after buying it, and I finished it on the same night.

On the cover is the description of the book: "An affecting novel of two young women who fell in love in 19th-century New England." My first thought was, ' it's a lesbian novel' but you won't find the word 'lesbian' in its pages. It's set in the early 1800s in America, so in the story, the decisions of Patience and Sarah are still quite shocking and controversial to their families.

The story is told from the perspectives of both women. We first read Patience's side of the story. She's quite rich, owning half of their family estate. Her dead father left her with inheritance she shares with her married brother. She's a painter, a hobby that her brother's wife detests. She's quite resigned to the fate of being the 'unmarried old aunt' until the day a woman named Sarah was at her door.

Unlike Patience, Sarah is from an average family. She cuts and sells wood for a living, a job that's usually for boys but since she's in a family full of female children, the task was given to her. She doesn't usually wear women's clothes, and people tend to judge her harshly.

Patience invites her to her home and shows Sarah her paintings. For the first time, Patience feels that someone appreciates her art. It seems to be love at first sight for them both. Both feel that they don't belong to their families and want to have a place to call their own - and they immediately talk of leaving town to go live in some other place and be together.

Of course, family issues make it more complicated. The society they live in is too Puritanical. There are frequent references to the Bible and punishment for sin. Edward, Patience's brother, wants the relationship to end. Sarah's father beats her up for her determination for Patience. They fall in and out of love, and Sarah leaves her home and Patience, to have an adventure alone. She eventually goes back, their relationship gets deeper, and soon Edward wants Patience to leave. They both try to make a life of their own.

I had the impression that there would be dramatic fights and confrontations regarding their relationship, but I felt pleasant surprise that the families of both Patience and Sarah don't really condemn them for what they feel. After their initial reluctance, they learn to accept it, and Edward telling Patience to leave was out of love than harsh judgement.

What I like about this book is the simple, poetic language that is both nice to read and has a subtle, dry humor. I read books not just for the exciting plot, but because the prose makes me feel a certain way. The writing somewhat reminds me of Margaret Atwood, but it's a little more subtle than Atwood's prose-poetry and metaphors.

This another great book to add to my LBTQA+ reads.

The story is inspired by the real-life relationship of the painter Mary Ann Wilson and Miss Brundidge, who lived in the early 19th century in Greene County, New York State.

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