Rubyfruit Jungle Review
Written in the 70s but in many ways lightyears ahead of its time, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle is a lesbian coming of age story with a main character you have no choice but to fall in love with - and not just because we all love a pushy lesbian.
Molly Bolt - wonderful, fantastic Molly Bolt - is the adopted daughter of a dirt-poor couple in Philadelphia who grows up picking bugs off potatoes and playing rough with boys. She is consistently told that everything about her is wrong - and consistently tells the world she doesn’t care, as long as she’s doing what makes her happy. As Molly makes her way through the world, she throws off societal expectations time after time in favour of doing what she damn well pleases. No cooking, no sewing, no playing with dolls or sittin’ like a lady. And as an adult, she bucks off monogamy, marriage and babies - hell, she even experiments with men despite identifying as a lesbian because Molly does what Molly wants to do and that’s that.
The whole concept of a woman (a gay woman at that) doing what she wants is shocking and radical in a world where a woman’s entire worth comes down to the men in her life. From Molly’s birth mother who’s described as a worthless slut because she had a baby out of wedlock, to Molly’s first love Leota who denies herself of true happiness so she can marry and have children because that’s what’s expected. Although, the book is packed with male and female characters who give up their happiness for a Societally Approved™ life - such as her best friend Leroy who’s definitely gay but settles down and marries a woman. Then there’s her adoptive father who is polyamorous but gives up his other lovers from societal pressure, and Leroy’s mum who silently dies of cancer because it’s not the done thing to bother your husband with your lady pains. But it’s the women who are really stuck here - not expected to make anything of themselves beyond finding a husband and maybe being a secretary if they can’t find one.
Molly, who’s as sharp as a tack, understands it early on. She dates a popular footballer throughout high school because she’s as smart as she is ambitious and knows she needs to be tactical in her relationships to get where she wants to be. Despite being passionate, righteous and stubborn, she’s quite cool headed and methodical - like when she takes her time to assess the social strata at school and decides where she wants to fit and how to dress and behave in order to get there, or playing it cool to get out of the psychiatric ward when she’s thrown in for lesbianism. In fact, the only person she’s unable to keep her cool around is her mum - Carrie - which is a particular skill mums have, isn’t it?
How gay is it?
So gay - 10/10. On top of being absolutely brilliant, Molly is as gay as the day is long and this book is packed with yummy gay emotional moments as well as gay characters who may not be able to admit that they’re gay characters.
However, Rubyfruit Jungle is most certainly a product of its time. The conversation around consent has thankfully changed since the 70s and I feel confident saying that some of the scenarios in the book would not have been written today, plus the incest thing - Molly basically calling an aversion to it ‘inhuman’ - was awfully strange and would be upsetting to someone who’d been a victim so should have been omitted entirely. Then there’s Molly’s attitude towards butches which needs an adjustment ASAP - it’s fair enough if they’re not her type, but to say there’s no point to them and ‘you might as well be with a man’ is a sizable misstep. I know Molly can’t be a perfect character because no human is perfect, but these were strange choices to make and so I can’t help but wonder if it is just a reflection of the authors own beliefs at the time of writing.
All in all, it’s a wonderful and complex book and you could read it a hundred times and find something different to love about it every time. Beautifully written, deep characters, and rich relationships. Not a flawless book (I mean, it was the 70s) but one you really should read and own and view through a more modern lens.