The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

Lori Horvitz’s first book is a memoir that chronicles her childhood as a New York City Jew, some of her travels in Europe and Asia, her creativity, and, mostly, her dating life. Horvitz dated men, then decided she was bisexual, then grappled with being a lesbian. As she mentioned in her Meet the Writer feature, Horvitz’s mother bought a photo frame from the store, but never removed the happy blond woman in the stock image. As a result, Horvitz wished to be (and later date) that blond woman. Horvitz suggests she stands out with her dark curly hair, Jewish heritage, and immigrant parents. As a kid, Horvitz loved to perform magic and hug her pet pocket poodle, the only living thing in her house she felt she could hug.

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I thought the book would proceed from childhood to college to adulthood, but I couldn’t make sense of the time structure in The Girls of Usually. I felt like someone had blindfolded me, relocated me, and when the blindfold was taken off, I had to re-learn where I was. Early, on page 35, Horvitz mentions a female college student she just met, who asks Horvitz if sex is good with her boyfriend. What boyfriend? I asked. He was never mentioned before. Soon, I realized this book is more like slice of life stories, one per chapter. The stories don’t always directly proceed chronologically. This drove me bonkers.

Another example: at the end of chapter 10 Horvitz booked a cheap trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In chapter 11, Horvitz starts with Rita, a woman she’s interviewing. Who is Rita?! I asked. Rita is a woman in her 40s. The chapter then goes back 20 years and tells the story of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip. Back when Horvitz rode the train, Rita stayed in the same compartment. The author explains that she ended up falling in love with Rita on this trip, the first time she realized she was into women. This timeline means that when we first meet Rita, Horvitz is in her 40s, too, not just out of college. Confusing! Why not end chapter 10 with saying she booked the trip, use chapter 11 to describe the trip, and have chapter 12 get into interviewing Rita 20 years later? Horvitz’s choice to tell things out of order is jolting and unnecessarily confusing.

At another point, Horvitz goes in circles. I bolded two parts to show you what I mean:

Upon my return to New York, Amy broke up with me and started dating a magician, a man she met while bartending at The Village Idiot, the tiny bar that used to be Downtown Beirut. Because of the poor economy and exorbitant real estate costs, just about every gallery in the East Village had closed down. Albert died, not from a gunshot wound but from AIDS. And Paula called to tell me about Barry, who just tested positive for AIDS. Two days later, she found out she was HIV negative. She remained friends with Barry and often brought him bee pollen and Spirulina, until ten years later when Barry was too sick to take care of himself, when he flew home to Indiana where his parents took care of him until he died in 2002, when his parents honored his request to be cremated but didn’t know what to do with the ashes. They sent them to Paula and, to this day, Paula’s not sure what to do with them. “They’re in a box in my closet,” she told me.

[paragraph break].

But now it’s 1989 and Amy just broke up with me.

Why are there so many people between the two mentions of Amy? If you’re wondering what role Albert, Paula, and Barry play here, or why it matters where Amy bartended, or that it used to be called a different name, I have no idea either.

In the last 1/3 of The Girls of Usually, Horvitz has a dog, a border collie/corgi mix, at her new house in North Carolina. In a later section, she’s getting the dog, which she learns is a border collie/corgi mix, because she moved into her house in North Carolina and can provide a pet a stable home. In an even later section, she describes her dog, a border collie/corgi mix, meeting a girlfriend’s dog for the first time. I started wondering if these essays were all published separately. If so, were they not edited for content? The reader is introduced to the dog three times! I’m providing several examples of the jumpiness of this book to show that it isn’t a one-time thing. This is the experience of almost the whole book.

Also in the last 1/3 of the book, the stories were all the same and with no indication if they are chronological. Here is the basic story of the author’s life: Horvitz chooses to enter the online dating world, Horvitz meets a new woman who is super crazy, Horvitz can tell right away the woman is super crazy (because she is obviously drunk, lying, evading, screaming, calling ex’s, etc.), Horvitz invests time and money in seeing this woman for long visits (sometimes two weeks) but ends up leaving early because crazy women are crazy. Horvitz explains her choices: she “suffers” the abuse of these women for far longer than she should because it gives her something to write about. Horvitz explains at least three times:

  • “But I was the writer, always in search of a good story, an interesting character. No matter the price. At least that’s what I told myself.”
  • “Maybe it was the writer in me who wanted to see this play out, to prove [my girlfriend] was nuts.”
  • Here Horvitz writes in second person: “You could have predicted all of this before you arrived; you knew the end of the story before it began, but you’re a writer, so you say, and perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

I found Horvitz’s excuse weak and mean-spirited in a way that helped the author avoid digging into her motivations. If she’s dating “crazy” women to get a story and be published, then she’s being exploitative. Perhaps Horvitz is justifying her dating choices in a way that doesn’t make her feel bad for not finding romantic love, but it was her choice to lead readers to believe she’s just in it for the story fodder.

At one point, she mentions she has a therapist. So, where is all the deep reflection one would do with a therapist? Why is it not in this book? The section with the therapist is written in second person (the only section!) as if it’s not really about Horvitz, so perhaps the work she’s doing in therapy isn’t quite ready to come out in book form. But that leaves the reader without much reason to read The Girls of Usually.

Horvitz’s childhood chapters (there are only a couple) were much more reflective. She gets a lot of negative feedback about what an LGBT person is when she’s a little kid. Because she’s shy, she’s called a “queer-o faggot” by the other third graders. Later, still as a girl, she sees on TV a woman argue against gay rights: “If gays are granted rights…next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards, and to nail biters.” These memories demonstrate to the reader how impressionable children are, which is important to keep in mind when we choose our words.

There are a few gems in Horvitz’s chapters about her adult life. She works as a mentor-friend for men with HIV, and she is assigned to Nestor. Nestor, rather than tell his family that he is gay and has HIV, which is the reason he has so many needle tracks in his arms, claims he is addicted to heroin. This, he knows, will go over better with his family. Pete, an abrasive straight man, actually gets HIV from shooting heroin. In his dying days, he says hateful things about LGBT people, but tries to smooth it over by complimenting a few gay people. In these examples, Horvitz captures the complexity of being a lesbian during the AIDS epidemic, and her first-hand accounts are valuable.

There is also a big about being Jewish sprinkled throughout The Girls of Usually. There’s mention of her family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and the time she visits a death camp, which makes it all more real. At one point, Horvitz reads tons of books about the Holocaust while dating a German woman who isn’t totally sure Hitler was a bad man because her grandpa always said Hitler fixed the economy. Again, there ins’t much reflection on what these moments mean. What does a mention here and there mean to the reader? Not much.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book. It’s unnecessarily difficult to follow, lacks deep emotional digging, and gets so repetitive in the end when she’s describing how crazy her ex-girlfriends are, even though she knew they had emotional issues she could exploit. During the last several chapters, I really just wanted the book to conclude.

I want to thank Lori Horvitz for sending me a copy of The Girls of Usually in exchange for a honest review.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

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43 comments

  1. I am currently reading/reviewing a novel where each time the protagonist discovers something about his family history, that is the place that story takes in the novel, so it presents like a mosaic. But while it requires the reader to pay attention, the novel flows or grows, like a tree slowly flowering, in all directions. So I’m wondering if that is the sort of effect Horvitz was aiming for. Unsuccessfully, it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bonkers is such a great word and not used nearly often enough! Thank you for promoting it! This sounds pretty bad – that paragraph with all those names is awful. My eyes were glazing over. And one of my pet hates is people who constantly refer to themselves as ‘a writer’ – what does that mean, exactly, especially in the days of self-publishing? Why do self-professed writers think that gives them either the ability to see things differently or to behave differently from all the rest of us? Pretentious! I say this as a reviewer and it might only be the reviewer in me that thinks it. As a reviewer I should possibly read it but the reviewer in me refuses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As someone who writes and reviews, I think it can be very hard to stand up and say, “Yes, I am a writer!” In many of my Meet the Writer features, I ask authors how they know when someone can call him or herself a writer, and most answer simply: when that person writes. That being said, having the power to publish doesn’t give a person the right to exploit others. You shouldn’t be afraid to be around a writer because she might make you look stupid or misrepresent you for money or promotion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent, thorough review. I loved that anecdote about the picture frame – it’s funny how little, seemingly inconsequential things become influential… Although maybe that’s only the case for highly observant individuals who end up becoming authors?!

    If the structure of a book is all over the place to appear clever, you can keep it. I don’t mind ‘working hard’ to get into a book with irregular structure but if a pattern hasn’t emerged by the halfway point then I’m not compelled to go on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Woah, this sounds like a mind boggling book- one of the things I really can’t stand is stories that jump around in time and do a poor job at it. It sounds like she only pressed on some gems that, if she’d gone deeper into and fleshed them out some, could have given the novel a bit more substance (which is almost the entire point of a memoir).
    Great review, very honest! And seeing that you’re already on your FOURTH book definitely makes me want to kick my reading up a notch!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gah, headspins! Dizziness! I don’t think this one is for me either. I’m all for non-linear timelines, but there has to be some logic to it and the reader needs to be able to locate themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I finally got to Rebecca on my reading list and hit on something to enjoy. I enjoyed Single Stroke Seven, but I felt myself being critical while reading, and I don’t want to be taken out of a story that much.

      Like

  6. Not sure about it now, which is kinda sad because the premise sounds pretty good and had more potential than was realized. Maybe the next book will be better about the structure if the author writes one.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t like books that drive me bonkers!
    While I do appreciate some mystery and can get behind non-linear plot, this book’s story appears more confusing than mysterious and experimental.
    It gather from your review that this isn’t the best summer read around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s like when someone starts telling you a story verbally, but she forgets that you don’t have all the context, so she goes back and explains the stuff you should have already known. It reads like that instead of a hook of some sort.

      Liked by 1 person

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