Stray Cityby Published 20 Mar 2018
A warm, funny, and whip-smart debut novel about rebellious youth, inconceivable motherhood, and the complications of belonging—to a city, a culture, and a family—when none of them can quite contain who you really are.
All of us were refugees of the nuclear family . . .
Twenty-four-year-old artist Andrea Morales escaped her Midwestern Catholic childhood—and the closet—to create a home and life for herself within the thriving but insular lesbian underground of Portland, Oregon. But one drunken night, reeling from a bad breakup and a friend’s betrayal, she recklessly crosses enemy lines and hooks up with a man. To her utter shock, Andrea soon discovers she’s pregnant—and despite the concerns of her astonished circle of gay friends, she decides to have the baby.
A decade later, when her precocious daughter Lucia starts asking questions about the father she’s never known, Andrea is forced to reconcile the past she hoped to leave behind with the life she’s worked so hard to build.
A thoroughly modern and original anti-romantic comedy, Stray City is an unabashedly entertaining literary debut about the families we’re born into and the families we choose, about finding yourself by breaking the rules, and making bad decisions for all the right reasons.
"Stray City" Reviews
I was like a bird who stashed every feather it molted. I’d nested in old selves for too long, afraid I’d need them again.Andrea Morales came to Portland, Oregon, to attend Reed College. Unlike the environment in her Nebraska home town, Portland offered a world in which it was entirely ok to be gay and out. In fact, she soon found herself part of a thriving lesbian sub-culture. But when Mom and Dad, heavily Catholic, learned that she had a girlfriend, parental funding for Reed was axed, and Andrea was urged to return home and pray away the gay. Didn’t happen. Check, please.
Chelsey Johnson - image taken from her site
Maybe everything’s not exactly coming up roses for Andrea in Portland, but, now twenty four, she has made a life for herself there. Yeah, she just broke up with her girlfriend. Why does it always have to go like this, that the one who cheated or lied ends up fine, even a girl magnet, and the other, the one who did nothing wrong, is scrap? Yeah, she has work, at three part time jobs. But, she is a member in good-standing of the local Lesbian Mafia, having managed to replace the family (well, some of them) who rejected her, seeing her as a sinful aberration, with a community that embraces and celebrates her for who she truly is. Up to a point, anyway.
For the first time I understood why queer people changed their names. It was about more than trying to be different or weird, though maybe it was a little bit that, to go by Tiger or Ace or Ponyboy or Dirtbag or whatever, my future girlfriend Flynn adding the F to her name. The name they gave you belongs to someone else, their invention of you; if you turn out not to be that person, you have to name yourself. But I stayed Andrea—I couldn’t let go entirely of the person I’d always been. The tyranny of family love is that you can’t help but love people who think God can’t stand the sight of you.One of the people with whom she is most comfortable is Ryan, the drummer for a local band, Cold Shoulder. They hang out, play Scrabble. He sends her charming retro postcards from wherever, when he is on tour with the band. They can talk about a wide range of subjects. There is real affection between them. There has even been a…gasp…kiss. He is clearly interested in continuing down that path, while she is reluctant. But she misses him when he is away. He is charming and interested and the no-strings element is appealing, as she is not interested in having a real relationship with a man. Friendship leads to something more, making for confusion and social awkwardness. She feels it necessary to keep their relationship from her gay friends. But, as will happen, even with protection, Andrea becomes pregnant, and her secret is out. Oopsy.
What to do? Keep it or head to Planned Parenthood for a D&C. How will her family, natural and constructed, react to the news? How will the prospective father cope? Andrea has to deal not only with the biological and financial details of her pregnancy, but must contend with hostile forces in her new community, women who see any congress with a man as a betrayal.
Stray City is a coming of age novel. While Andrea learned who she was, sexually, as a kid, in flashback, and arrived in Portland clear on her orientation, we see her grow from a young person into an adult, from a newbie into a vet. The form begins with a significant personal loss,
(yep) requires a quest for answers, (uh huh) gaining experience in the world, (for sure) presentation and resolution of a conflict between the main character and the world, or in this case two worlds, (ya think?) her parental and chosen environments, growing in world and self-knowledge, (she does) overcoming challenges, (most def) and resolving into acceptance into that world (whichever world), or managing at least a modus vivendi. (Whew!) Helping others along in their struggles can also be a part, and Andrea does that as well
One thing that I loved about this book was the combination of warmth and effervescence it exudes. Andrea is a lovable everywoman, relatable even to a straight male codger like me. While she is no blushing rose, she has an innocence about her that is very appealing. Trying to find love, trying to fit in, have friends, and be a part of a community.
Another is the portrait that is painted of the lesbian scene in Portland at the time of the novel, 1999. Again (see straight male codger ref above), this is an environment with which I am totally unfamiliar. It is always fun to learn about new things, and Stray City offers a vivid image of a culture in a time and place. It not only takes on the sort of know-nothing homophobia one might expect in less sophisticated places and cultures, but makes it a point to note that even among the out community there are plenty who would don the robes of Torquemada to enforce their own exclusive set of rules.
It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we’d formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic.Johnson includes in her book chapters of occasional lists. For example Rules of the Lesbian Mafia, The Lesbian Mafia Official Shitlist, Immigration Question Test, and others. I thought these a mixed lot, sometimes fun, but inconsistent. Not that it needed breaking up, but a series of back and forths between two characters in brief paper notes, messages on answering machines, postcards, e-mails and unsent letters, does alter the rhythm of the story, in an ok way, while providing important elements of character development.
The author has incorporated elements of her personal life into Stray City. A remote residence for one character surely reflects a bit of Park Rapids, Minnesota, where she was raised. Time some young characters spend in Rock Camp is certainly based on Johnson’s time as a volunteer at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, as is her familiarity with rock hardware. (Would you know the difference between a Telecaster and say, a Strat, or a Les Paul?) And including two ten-year-olds who compose and perform must have come from there as well. Andrea’s fondness for karaoke is well-informed by Johnson’s affection for the form. I expect that Edith Head, another stray, of the feline variety, is a make-a-wish version of Johnson’s late kitty, Seven.
There is a persistent feeling of hopefulness, of good cheer that permeates the book. Chelsey Johnson clearly loves her characters, demonstrated maybe most clearly when she is noting their inner doubts and conflicts. This is not a laugh-out-loud book, but there is humor aplenty that will make you smile. We hang with Andrea as she adapts to her new life in Portland, struggle with her through her to-keep-or-not-to-keep decision, and root for her in another new life when she becomes a mother. This book is a joyous celebration of life lived to its fullest, with its doubts, pitfalls, discoveries, setbacks, joys, and challenges. It will leave you more knowledgeable about a culture that, odds are, is unfamiliar. It will give you a beautifully drawn character that you can easily care about, facing problems that are real to most of us, in one form or another, and, finally, it will leave you smiling. Stray City is a fabulous first from a talented young writer. It looks like Chelsey Johnson has found a home as a novelist.
Review posted – November 3, 2017
Publication date – March 20, 2018
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
The naked man body still made me bashful. You get used to seeing naked women all your life, but a man’s floppy cluster looks so exposed and hapless.
this is a sweet, breezy reversal of the “gay for you” trope, in which andrea morales, an established lesbian who has sacrificed her college education and severed all contact with her homophobic parents in order to live freely and openly, hooks up with a dude, gets pregnant, and decides, like madonna, she’s keeping her baby (but not the dude), no matter what papa (in this case, the lesbian mafia) thinks of her life choices.
it’s set in portland in the 90’s, and even though andrea is twenty-four at the start, this is still a coming-of-age novel, because that whole DIY punk zine noise bike-riding vegetarian anti-establishment art collective scene is one that supports the extension of adolescence, and andrea’s experience with ryan is really just one of those “testing the sexual waters” experiments when anything is possible and nothing has consequences. except, of course, this time.
it’s a sweet book, yes, but it’s also smart, and it doesn’t fall into easy oppositions or hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of a community priding itself on inclusion and permissiveness while despising Chasing Amy and ani difranco and anne heche and others who have crossed over into unsuitable bedfellow territory, when andrea’s chosen family is just as bewildered and scornful of her and ryan as her biological family was of her and women and her hard-won independence and sense of self is uprooted all over again.
I realized I had traded one small town for another.
I thought about some of the most dogmatic anarchist punks I’d known, whose parents turned out to be bankers and oilmen. I thought of the class-discussion radicalism police who leaped to call out everyone else on their shit, desperate to cover their own. How even I had thrown myself deeper into the Lesbian Mafia as soon as I started sleeping with Ryan. It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we’d formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic.
the protectiveness makes sense - this begins in 1998, with the brandon teena tragedy in the community’s rearview (and in andrea’s home state of nebraska), and the murder of matthew shepard also occurs during the course of this story, so there’s a lot of high-profile hate to process, and many of the characters found acceptance in this new queer "family" after being rejected by their parents, and by extension, the straight community, and any seeming “relapse” by a member is unsettling and dangerous. inclusiveness has its boundaries, and straight dudes, no matter how feminist and undouchey, are well beyond its borders.
We all had a strong sense that lesbian drama was our drama, and maintained a protective shield from curious outsiders. For men, lesbian was a porn category.
i have no personal connection to portland in the 90’s, but i trust the book’s blurbs that it captures the time and place exceptionally well. it definitely does resonate with that time in life, all rootlessness and possibility and revelations and figuring out the details and desires of the self and of relationships while everything is soft and blurry with evolving and becoming:
Maybe Flynn at thirty was still becoming, I realized. Maybe the Flynn I loved was on the way out. Or maybe the Flynn I loved hadn’t been around for some time now. It was easy to mistake proximity for closeness.
really, a very strong and surprising debut and i look forward to whatever she does next.
i just finished this and was hoping to have a review posted before its release date, but maybe you can beat me to it! go - show me how it's done! review like the wind!
4 high stars
Stray Friends was a lovely surprise. I had no expectations when I started this book, knowing nothing about the story or the author.
The first part of the story takes place in the late 1990s, focusing on Andrea in her early twenties in Portland, Oregon. Andrea (or Andie as she is known by her friends) is gay, and living an insulated life within her tight knit community of friends. At a crisis point in her life, Andie “strays” toward a relationship with a man, which puts her at odds with herself and her community. The second part of the story flashes forward ten years in Andrea’s life. There is so much to say about what happens to Andrea, but I want to avoid spoilers. There is a key and lovely turn to the story that is best experienced as you read it. And I loved the ending.
This is really a story about the extreme emotions, idealism and politics of youth, as compared with the tempered emotions and realism of adulthood. I found myself being impatient with Andie and her friends in the first part, but when I got to the second part I realized that this was the book’s narrative arc. The parts fit perfectly together.
The writing is very straightforward, but the emotions are potent and genuine. I would love to read this author’s next book.
Thank you to the publisher for giving me access to an advance copy.
A heartwarming and witty book about a lesbian who has sex with a man, gets pregnant, and decides to keep the baby. Though Stray City pays homage to a distinct setting and community - the lesbian underground scene of 90's Portland - its themes of identity, searching for belonging, and art are universal. The novel contains challenging scenes such as facing rejection from a homophobic biological family, followed by exclusion from a queer family of choice, as well as humorous and insightful one-liners about gender, heteronormative family structures, and coming of age. I am still mulling over how Andrea, our protagonist, operates both within and outside of traditional systems of connection, such as by still having a romantic partner but eschewing the institution of marriage.
A much-needed book in terms of representing queer and alternative characters and relationships, I would recommend Stray City to anyone searching for a novel that represents diversity in a meaningful way, with a rich and intelligent voice. For the sake of transparency, I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader's copy from the publisher for review.
Andrea Morales was born and raised in rural Nebraska, part of a devout Catholic family. When she comes to the realization as a young teen that she is lesbian, she tries to be the best daughter she can be--never rebellious, good grades in school, attending mass regularly--in the hopes of storing up brownie points for the eventual day when she 'comes out' to her family.
Then in the late 1990s, 'Andy' goes off to college in Portland, Oregon and there, amongst a strong lesbian community, she can finally be free to be her true self, experimenting with love and having her heart broken a couple times along the way. Andy finds a new family here with these women but finds they also have rules and even what they call 'the Lesbian Mafia.'
So when Ryan Coates, a musician with the band Cold Shoulder, strikes up a friendship with her and that leads to other 'benefits,' Andy becomes confused. She knows she's a lesbian but why this attraction to a guy? Is it just because she's been feeling unattractive and unloved lately and his pursuit is a huge boost to her ego? And then she finds out she's pregnant--god, how will she tell her friends?!
This is terrific writing, delving deeply into relationships, friendship, family and love with great heart and humor. I could not put it down! Hard to believe this is Chelsey Johnson's debut--the voice is so authentic, the characters so real, just spot on.
I learned a lot from this book--I knew nothing about this community and very little about lesbian relationships--so this was quite new territory for me. I enjoy books that expand my horizons, increasing my understanding of people and love in all its myriad varieties.
Many thanks to Katherine Turro at HarperCollins/WilliamMorrow for providing me with a paperback advanced reader's edition of this insightful new book. Kudos! You have found a brilliant new author here.