Critical Evaluation

“Juno’s Swans by Tamsen Wolff is not a traditional queer “first love” novel. It’s not a story about becoming and it doesn’t contain bromides about the magic of new love. What it offers instead is a story about the limits of love: both the crash at the end of a first love, and the tunnel vision infatuation can give, the kind where everything outside that adoring gaze becomes flattened.

Juno’s Swans gives us Nina, a high school senior washed ashore from a summer in Cape Cod in which she went to an acting residency, fell madly in love with Sarah, and had her heart broken. It gives us the moment of falling in love and the knowledge that it must end. It also gives us richly drawn characters and complex situations: her best friend Titch, who is awkward and difficult in all the best ways; an older English professor who enters into a sexual relationship with Nina, then a high school junior; a half-absent mother; another older male acting teacher who also enters into a relationship with his teenage female student (unequal power dynamics and predation are a frustratingly under-explored topic in the book—I counted four such relationships). The novel gives us a particular moment in space and time: early 1980s and the early HIV/AIDS years, New York. It gives us magnificent clear prose and dialogue. It gives us all of those things, but the novel’s preoccupation is unapologetically with Sarah and Nina’s love for her.”

Carson Beker, “ ‘Juno’s Swans,’ by Tamsen Wolff.” Lamba Literary. November 15, 2018.

First Excerpt

“Sarah says she’s in love with someone else. The idea is so hard to hold in my head that it keeps flipping over again like a bath toy you try to invert in the water. I’m in love with her, she said (or rather, she says every day, every hour on the hour, every four minutes and twenty-three seconds, like a hateful, erratic cuckoo clock). I’m in love with her (in a solicitous stranger’s voice that makes me feel newly wild, broken open, vicious, sick).

“You can’t be, I said (glossy-eyed, disbelieving, glazed, cracked), you’re for me.

“Listen, I like a love story. And this would be a love story except that Sarah wrecked it, just came on in and jumped on its head casually in cleats, so instead I’m rooting around, but I’m not even finding the punctured remains. I know there are countless ways to make an exit, family who leave and friends who turn into strangers. But this. I could not have imagined it. If she hadn’t loved me once maybe she wouldn’t have left me to the dogs, to the wilderness, to my own devices, which as it turns out, all seem to amount to the same thing. Even with everything else that’s happened, I keep circling the loss of her like an animal worrying a wound. I need one of those huge cones they put around dogs’ necks to keep them from doing this, from licking the painful place again and again.”


Second Excerpt

“Maybe this is what people mean when they say you have a growing pain. You sprout new limbs, monstrous organs right there on the spot—you feel the flailing, the impossibility of coordinated movement, your belly distended, pushing out your rib cage, and you hear the groaning, creaking, roaring fury of your cavernous bones. It didn’t much make me want to talk. It didn’t much make me want to open my mouth ever again.

“So instead I am sitting here in silence with Titch reading and me on my lumpy seat, lumpy with grief, just stupid with it. There’s the back of Titch’s impenetrable neck. Over her bent head a poster is hanging partly off the wall. Under the curl of paper it says, ACE: The New Frontier.

“SPACE. Of course: SPACE. SPACE: The New Frontier. It’s from before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded sophomore year and Christa McAuliffe blew up on national television along with those six other astronauts nobody can ever remember. We watched it happen, with most of the rest of the country, in our case in the school auditorium on a big television screen. A lot of people had posters and hats and the like. Our school and the whole state had a kind of proprietary interest since Christa was from New Hampshire, picked from 11,000 teachers nationwide, people liked to boast. She taught at Concord. Our football team had lost to Concord twice the season before the Shuttle launch. (We lost to everybody. We were a joke.) When the explosion happened seventy-three seconds after takeoff, people mostly looked around the auditorium, confused, as though an explanation would follow, but the faces of the teachers were as perplexed and stunned as ours.”