A wonderful debut novel
I read a lot of books, and love a lot of books. I am constantly amazed at how far we’ve come, at how much the quality has risen in the twenty-five or thirty years since I started reading sapphic fiction. I mean no disrespect to anyone but some of the books I read then wouldn’t stand a chance today and yet I loved them for existing. Others were objectively awesome and even if they don’t all stand the test of time, they’re classics for good reasons. What I’m trying to say, however, is that there’s so much choice now, so many books that have it all – a good story, a good plot, good characters, good writing, good editing – and still, once in a while, I’ll read one and feel it shine brighter.
Almost from the first sentence, I knew I would add Anne E. Terpstra to my list of authors whose writing style makes my brain cells sing. And on top of that, the story filled my heart with warmth even as it repeatedly broke it, each time with a promise to make it whole again.
For the last three years, Olivia Northman has been trying to recover from the car accident that killed her wife and left her alone with their autistic son Ben, trying to find a balance between moving on – mostly for his sake – and not letting go – for his sake as well as hers. A short-lived relationship with a former classmate reawakened her desire for physical connection but her needs and desires will always come second to Ben’s. Ellie Vasquez didn’t expect her new job as an occupational therapist to bring a potential love interest into her life. Falling for very white and very blond Olivia seems unavoidable, however, despite the ten-years difference, despite Olivia’s restricted availability, despite everything.
Don’t start this book thinking you’ll read a few pages before bed. You won’t stop at a few pages. Strangely enough, Beyond Any Experience is the opposite of a sad book, even if the premise is as tragic as can be (it’s my nightmare scenario, to be honest). Yes, there are moments that made me cry, scenes that were hard to read. These are the breaking-my-heart parts. It’s a journey and truth be told, if I let it get inside me, it’s a journey from hell. And that’s why it’s so full of hope. Hell isn’t a dead-end. One can come back. The journey itself is fraught with danger and littered with hurdles (navigating scars, an age gap, a newly-heavier body, cultural differences, overprotective families…) but it is possible.
Anne E. Terpstra wields words with a delicate and intimate touch. Ellie’s determination, her almost immediate love for both Olivia and Ben, her respect for their past, for their love for Olivia’s first wife Sophia, her patience, her joie de vivre are the perfect counterbalance to Olivia’s walled-up heart, her sense of duty, her willingness to protect her eleven-year-old child and give him the best possible life.
The book opens with Olivia attempting to get an upset Ben to verbalize the reasons for his frustration. Later on, it becomes obvious that Olivia too struggles with words and feelings when she’s overwhelmed. Her physicality, her love of sex as a connection comes as a surprise to her lovers but it makes complete sense. She uses it as both a way to express love and to escape. The author depicts Olivia’s conflicting emotions in an impressively relatable way. Nothing is black and white and certainly not Olivia. Or love.
Surrounding Ellie, Olivia and Ben, are a few striking secondary characters: Ellie’s family, best friends, and former colleagues, Olivia’s mother, Sophia’s family, but my favourite of them all is Olivia’s best friend of forty years, Arti. She brings welcome relief and just the right amount of inappropriate sauciness. She’s one hundred per cent there for Olivia, including when Olivia needs to be called out. I love her.
I’ve said it before, there’s not much I love more than a debut novel that blows my mind. Beyond Any Experience did and will most definitely be one of my favourite books of 2022. 5 stars.