TW: overt sexual themes, violence
"I treated dating like it was my job. The men were easy fun. There was more to it, of course, but I liked the customs that came with being a woman on a date with a man. I was well-rehearsed. Women gave me stage fright. With women, there was an open space of possibility, a potential to define the relationship on our terms, but that meant I had to account for myself."
Saskia Vogel's Permission was, for me, a highly disappointing read - a book that glowed only in the rare parts it touched on the stigma of being bisexual and the ways women conform to be with men. The two major plotlines, the grief of losing a father and the BDSM erotic sections, were incomplete and disorderly expressed.
The main character of the book is Echo Logan, a struggling actress who was raised on the outskirts of Los Angeles, along the ocean. Her childhood home is a few blocks away from the ocean, but the ocean is only accessible if she scales down cliffs. From a very young age, Echo has a strong fear of these cliffs.
Annoyed by what he believes is an irrational fear, Echo's father encourages her to get over it by leading her down the cliffs himself. He tells her, "Don't be scared. Just don't fall." This is how it goes for fifteen years.
Ironically, it is falling from these cliffs that kills Echo's father when Echo is much older. While he is leading Echo to the beach, one day he suddenly slips, disappears, and emergency services can't find his body.
The death leaves Echo in limbo. Weeks go by and she can't go back to her downtown apartment. She's still at her childhood home, this time alone with her mother. Being at home gives Echo time to think about her upbringing, her sexuality, and her parent's marriage.
Echo's reflection on her parents' marriage were some of the best parts of the book to me.
Because her father is dead, Echo's mother takes up smoking cigarettes again, a habit she hid to conform to Echo's father's wishes. Already, her mother, a German immigrant, is making plans to go back home, "Munich or maybe Lake Constance." You get the sense that she wouldn't have moved to the United States had it not been for the fact that she fell in love with Echo's father.
Echo's mother reflects on her marriage: "Twenty-six years is a long time for anyone to be in the wrong place." It didn't feel like Echo's mother was being callous, but rather she was exhausted to have changed herself so much for marriage - and now grief was freeing her. In one flashback scene, Echo's mother goes to elocution classes to get rid of her accent. In another, Echo's mother yells at Echo's father: "Look at me. I'm killing myself for you." Vogel's thoughts on what marriage often means for women are interesting to read.
Similarly, Echo's reflection on her sexuality is one of the better parts of the book. As a child, Echo experimented with her childhood best friend Ana. This experimentation, and their entire friendship, ends when Ana's father Dr. Moradi catches them. And something keeps Echo from admitting her love for Ana, even when Ana calls her years later.
Even scarier is when Dr. Moradi attacks Echo after they meet again at the local art center. "She won't talk to me because of th-this" he says, referring to Ana. "You're a disease." Instead of taking responsibility for his own homophobia, he blames Echo for the unraveling of his relationship with his daughter.
On dating men, Echo has no problem but seems rather unfazed by the experience. Something you'll notice is how often Echo fakes surprise when men give her compliments: "you could be an actor" or "i love the way you eat." Echo's heard it all before, yet she plays the game. Again, Vogel's feminist commentary on women's interactions with men is sometimes brilliant.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book is pretty uneven.
Vogel's website describes her book Permission: "Set among the bright colors of L.A., Permission is a love story about three people sick with dreams and expectations who turn to the erotic for comfort and cure. As they stumble through the landscape of desire, they ask themselves: how do I want to be loved?"
Perhaps I misunderstood the book, but Vogel's novel did not appear to be a love story nor was it really about dreams either.
Further into the book, a dominatrix named Orly and her submissive Lonnie (or Piggy) move across from her parents' home. Echo takes a liking to Orly and they form a relationship. but it never rang as erotic because an uninterrupted connection never formed between the two of them. It felt like Piggy (the submissive man who has a quasi relationship with Orly) was always in the way with his jealousy, and/or Echo just seemed to be an assistant to Orly in servicing other men.
I thought the BDSM scenes, and the foot fetish Piggy has, were super uninteresting. I wish this book was more sapphic in nature. Additionally, I wish it would have completed the conversation about grief. It felt like it jarringly hopped in and out of talking about Echo's grief for her father.
I hate feeling this way because it brings me no joy to say I don't like a book. I hate disliking a book and I hate reading reviews that feel like merciless, unthoughtful draggings. I generally try to see the good in every book I read because most books have good things about them, even the bad ones. But this book put me in a damn reading slump - that's how much I did not look forward to picking it up.