Melissa Duclos’s Besotted tells the simultaneously building and unraveling love story of two queer women expats in Shanghai, Sasha and Liz. Their relationship begins with Sasha beefing up Liz’s unimpressive application materials to work in the school where Sasha works; Sasha decides, before the two even meet, that Liz is the means by which she will smoke loneliness out of her apartment and her life. When Liz arrives, Sasha goes to work engineering a love between them; she invites Liz first into her apartment and then into her bed. The romance almost immediately proves itself to be problematic as Sasha’s obsession and Liz’s apathy clash. Their love officially begins to end when Sasha, in response to Liz’s radio silence to her time-sensitive texts about a new apartment, realizes, “I was ready to forgive anything, so sure that she was simply failing to be the person she most wanted to be. It never occurred to me that her intentions and her actions were the same.”
Duclos’s situation of the story in the lǎowài community in Shanghai heightens the impending doom of Sasha and Liz’s relationship. The community itself is defined by escape. The expats they socialize with are described as “listing cities they plan to move to the way normal people list movies they’d like to see.” Even the city itself shape-shifts, resisting definition: “Constantly under construction, Shanghai was a place to reinvent yourself. This was true for expats like me and Liz, who shed old selves like so much dead skin sloughed off by our pedicurists, but also, increasingly, for the Chinese themselves, or the young ones anyway….” The bustling, lonely, soul-searching city is the perfect place for Sasha and Liz to meet and, inevitably, to part.
Fellow expat Dorian, on the other hand, reeks of permanence: “While many of Dorian’s expat friends treated Shanghai like their own personal Neverland, Dorian saw more in the city than that.” Dorian, a little older than many of the barely adult expats, sees a potential to built a life in Shanghai that the others don’t. An architect, his disdain for his friends’ ambivalence about their temporary homes grates on him: “He didn’t understand the colleagues who lived in one of the many tiled high-rises dotting the city or worse the charmless planned neighborhoods on the outskirts, each house a replica of the one next door. Dorian would rather die … he needed to live in a building that mattered.” While Sasha and Liz and most of the other expats take no pride in their homes and prefer to rent their furniture, Dorian jumps through flaming bureaucratic hoops to own a tiny piece of property in Shanghai. But his desire for permanence, and the exceptional commitment to escape it cloaks, turn Dorian into the story’s villain.
One of the most powerful narrative tools Duclos employs in this text is seamless shifting from a first-person narration of Sasha to omniscient third-person narration. We weave through the minds of the characters, sometimes making her privy to information that Sasha is not. Often times, what Sasha does and does not know is unclear. In this early scene of Sasha, Dorian, and Liz in a bar, for instance, the keeper of the knowledge is unclear: “… she was too nervous to laugh. Men like Dorian made her anxious. She was trying, though. I’ll give her credit. She’d told herself that things were going to be different in China, and so she took a deep breath and tried to be different.” The lack of clarity in narratorial authority reflects the poor communication between Sasha and Liz and all the expats, when it comes down to it; each woman’s experience of the relationship, and her time in China at large, is dictated by what she chooses to acknowledge. This idea is reinforced by Duclos’s repetition of the phrase, “Noticing things gave them power. Saying them aloud made them true.” Throughout the novel, many not-quite-platitudes like this one seem alternately true and utterly false, contributing to the book’s lovely slipperiness.
Duclos also makes the bold choice of personifying emotions. She begins with the loneliness of which that she attempts to rid herself: “Loneliness took up all available space, breathed the air meant for me, absorbed the heat and left me shivering.” Once Sasha meets Liz and loneliness vacates the premises, a new roommate joins them in the apartment: love. One description gets at the crux of her: “Love is not a builder and she cannot be built.” Besotted is, ultimately, a love story. And this characterization of love says it all. Despite Sasha’s devoted, and often creepy, attempts to build a love with Liz, she cannot. And despite Liz’s incredible aversion to conflict, she manages to reject Sasha, day by day, refusing to be built.
In many ways, each character is a caricature: the obsessive or apathetic woman, the shitty guy. Which makes is even more impressive how they interact with the nuance we associate with our own real lives. Melissa Duclos’s Besotted makes you look at yourself and wonder how complicated you really are. It is a transfixing experience, bearing witness to Duclos’s characters as they erect and destroy the lives they live inside.
Besotted, by Melissa Duclos. Brooklyn Heights, New York: 7.13 Books, March 2019. 248 pages. $16.99, paper.
Genevieve Shuster will graduate from Hamilton College in May with a BA. She is a creative writing major and a sociology minor and she is in a committed relationship with WNYC. Her other book reviews and journalistic work can be found at Document Journal online.