For as long as I can remember (in the ten years that I’ve been an out lesbian), Rubyfruit Jungle has appeared and been mentioned in countless places. Websites, books, magazines, and word-of-mouth all tout this unorthodox coming-of-age novel as The One Lesbian Novel You Must Read. I suspect that, in the ’70s when it was published, this was probably true. Reading it today, I found it to be, in a word, heavy-handed.
Rather than a carefully crafted story, Rubyfruit Jungle reads a bit like a piece of propaganda. It is as though the author is using this story to cover an essay of thinly veiled criticism of patriarchy and heteronormativity. Molly, the main character, is kicked out of college for being a lesbian and faces discrimination at work and school for being a woman. However, she never really seems to be emotionally or psychologically affected by this prejudice; she simply maintains a critical attitude. (In other words, Molly sounds like the author commenting on the misfortune that befalls her rather undeveloped character).
One thing I found interesting was Molly’s dislike of the butch/femme dynamic, and the butch way of presenting. In asserting her belief that lesbians should not emulate heterosexual relationship roles, Molly comes off as butch-phobic. I can understand where she’s coming from, but I also think that her opinion discounts the entirely acceptable masculine-of-center way of being. Again, though, my perspective is shaped by the 2010s, whereas Molly’s (and Brown’s) is a product of the 1970s. It’s interesting how LGBT culture has so drastically changed over the years.
There was one final aspect of this story that bothered me to no end: all of Molly’s lovers were “straight” until she met them! This is something that so rarely happens in real life that it just seemed ridiculous and unbelievable coincidental in the book. Every woman in whom Molly took an interest turned out to be down with girl-on-girl action. Ah, if only real life were like that.
I’m glad I read Rubyfruit Jungle for herstory’s sake, and for my own edification, and to better understand lesbian life in the ’70s. But it’s time we update our category of must-read lesbian novel. Let Rubyfruit remain part of the lesbian canon, but not as a story that is applicable to lesbian culture these days. Society has changed too much for that.