“Clio Rising” by Paula Martinac— A Secret

Martinac, Paula. “Clio Rising”, Bywater Books, 2019.

A Secret

Amos Lassen

Every time I read something by Paula Martinac, I feel amazed that she chooses themes so close to my heart. This time she wonderfully brings together the word of the ex-patriates and the New York City Gay scene. As a Gertrude Stein fan and somewhat scholar (can one call himself a scholar?), I knew I would love this book. Set in New York city in 1983, we meet Livvie Bliss who has just come out as a lesbian. She has left western North Carolina come to New York to do hopefully begin a career in publishing and to be able to live openly as a gay woman. It was not easy for her and she actually almost gave up until a friend helps her get a job with Bea Winston’s literary agency.

With her southern charm and youthful outlook, Bea hopes that Livvie will help her become close to one of the agency’s most illustrious clients, Clio Hartt, an older closeted lesbian, modernist writer and a woman who lived through The Lost Generation in Paris. It seems that Clio has become something of a recluse who rarely goes out and is content to stay in her Greenwich Village apartment just as she has done for the last forty years. Livvie becomes, in a sense, Clio’s companion. Clio was considered a major force and as a literary giant even though she had published only one book. What Livvie really wants to do is begin a career in publishing and to be able to live openly as a gay woman.

Essentially, Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion. The two connect partially because of their shared Carolina heritage, and the communication and rapport they share gives Clio support and inspiration to begin to think about returning to publishing. Livvie notices that there is something about Clio’s writing that bothers her and as time passes and the two women share conversations, Livvie learns about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes. Livvie notices uncomfortable parallels between her own circle of friends and the world of expatriate artists of the 1920s. Finally when Clio realizes that her days left are numbered, she shares a secret that could totally change Livvie’s life and upend the literary establishment.(And no, I am not sharing that here).

Paula Martinac has been able to bring together two important eras of history—- the Paris years and the New York gay scene of the 80s. Though the two periods are separated by decades, there are commonalities, especially in the literary world. I was immediately pulled into the book both because of its plot and its prose. Martinac brings back the past in her own special way and we are so lucky to have it. I also love the intergenerational aspects of “Clio Rising” and the difficult friendship between two women of contrasting generations offers so much. The fact that they are both Southern women was a touch of genius and while I won’t explain that here, I am sure you will understand what I mean when you read the book.

We certainly see “how we became entangled with one another— as lovers, friends, allies, and enemies.” Martinac leaves nothing out and her descriptions of the time include daily life with its job issues and housing problems. Then there is the AIDS epidemic and I am so glad that this was included since we should not for a moment forget our Holocaust.  The characters like the history is very real and as such there are  unsure approaches, lost and missed opportunities and satisfying connections just like in life itself. I love, love, love “Clio Rising”.