Book review: Valencia – Michelle Tea (fiction, ****)

If the definition of a successful novel is one that instantly whisks you away to a different time and place, then Valencia is a highly successful novel.

It takes Michelle Tea less than a page to plunge the reader into her gritty, exuberant version of San Francisco. Tea’s stories – of unsettling sexual experiences, of bad jobs, of drug-induced adventures, of being poor-but-happy in a city you love – will be familiar to most twentysomethings. Yet the narrative is so raw and emotional that the usual post-adolescent angst feels surprisingly fresh.

The big draw here, I suppose, is that 90% of Valencia’s characters are lesbians. (Valencia being a street in San Francisco’s Mission District that’s popular with lesbians.) So if you’re looking for lesbian love stories, they’re here! That said, the particulars of these love stories may be different, but the messiness of relationships is pretty universal. And Tea does messiness well.

In fact, ‘messy’ is a good word to describe Valencia – for good and for bad.

Valencia has the quality of a series of inter-connected short stories, but Tea’s vignettes aren’t really sharp enough for each one to stand alone. The chapters feature overlapping characters and relationships, but there’s not really enough forward momentum to call it a novel. It’s clearly semi-autobiographical, but it doesn’t contain enough meaningful reflection to call it a memoir. The result is something that’s loosely plotted, baggy and unrefined in places, sometimes tipping over into poetic nonsense.

Often, I find it hard to praise or recommend a novel that’s obviously flawed. But I don’t feel that way about Valencia. Flawed, it may be. But if you’re looking for a meaty, girl-centric book, you should read it.