Tuesday, July 5, 2022

‘Rainbow Rainbow’ Review: Queer Lives Are Spotlighted in Short Story Collection

In Lydia Conklin’s forthcoming story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, they bring readers through the lives of queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming characters.

“A nonbinary writer on the eve of top surgery enters into a risky affair during the height of COVID. A lesbian couple enlists a close friend as a sperm donor, plying him with a potent rainbow-colored cocktail. A lonely office worker struggling with their gender identity chaperones their nephew to a trans YouTube convention. And in the depths of a Midwestern winter, a sex-addicted librarian relies on her pet ferrets to help resist a relapse at a wild college fair.”

The main area in which this collection excels is the way Conklin puts queer lives front and center. Each story features a queer protagonist and secondary queer characters. Regardless of the situations Conklin places their characters in, they give characters the opportunity to live their lives without necessarily centering them only on their queerness. They have more depth, and it was a good decision on Conklin’s part to also span across age ranges and POVs.

Another highlight is that characters do have the chance to question and explore their identities. One story, “Pioneers,” highlights a young person who opts to be an ox over a matriarch figure for a large class project. Due to this decision, they begin to understand a little bit more about themselves, even if that understanding isn’t fully formed. Similarly, “Sunny Talks” features a non-binary person who accompanies their trans nephew to a convention, wondering how to tell said nephew about their identity. It was interesting how Conklin incorporated both questioning and surety of identity through an older character.

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Despite the collection’s strengths, I struggled with it. My primary issue is that I went in expecting mainly queer joy and never really felt that. I did like seeing characters comfortable in their gender and sexuality or figuring it out, but it always seemed like there was some sort of caveat attached. Not every queer person is granted a breezy, happy life, and this collection reflects that. However, I think it would’ve benefitted from including at least one story that was no strings attached, pure, unabashed queer joy — something more light-hearted to break up the general intensity of the book.

Let me preface this next part by saying that I will and have read darker/heavier books prior to this one; I’m okay with being uncomfortable if it feels warranted. That said, there were some stories and situations in Rainbow Rainbow that made me deeply uncomfortable in a way I did not like and felt unnecessary (see content/trigger warnings below). That feeling primarily nestled in a couple of the stories involving younger teens/tweens (“The Black Winter of New England” and “Ooh, the Suburbs” specifically). Kids can and do question and explore their gender and sexual identities. The problem with Conklin’s approach to it is that they wrote those stories in a way that was more explicit than they needed to be and put minors in situations they really didn’t need to be in. It felt very weird to read those moments, especially considering this is not a book meant for a YA or younger audience.

Overall, Rainbow Rainbow is a well-written collection where queer readers (especially trans ones) can find themselves on the page. Conklin is adept at creating a variety of different characters and exploring their thoughts and emotions. However, the characters were largely unlikeable, and readers who prefer likable characters may struggle. Still, Conklin boldly embraces the uncomfortable nature of their stories. Readers already familiar with and a fan of Conklin’s writing will enjoy this collection.

Rainbow Rainbow releases on May 31. Thank you to NetGalley and Catapult for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Content Warnings: transphobia, pet death & near pet death, sexual activity between minors, sexual abuse, pedophilia, fatphobia, racism, toxic relationships

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