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“Alice Sadie Celine” Is a Delectable Queer Sex Novel With a Wicked Sense of Humor

Sure, plenty of people love a slow-burn, simmering story about queer desire and love. Some people, like me, like a queer sex novel that gets straight to the point. In the delicious and often uncomfortable Alice Sadie Celine by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, fingering in an elevator happens on page 20, and almost instantly, I knew this was a book for a freak like me. There’s no slow-burn to find here; the narrative of this novel unfolds like a wildfire, every bit as destructive and fittingly set against an overly hot, climate change-baked California. Its three central characters impressively set ablaze the twisted triangle that binds them.

The sex itself is pretty straightforward, but the context and dynamics are a mess. Alice and Sadie are best friends. Sadie’s mother Celine is a Judith Butler-type feminist writer and thinker with a cultish fanbase and a lot of Ideas about sex and sexuality. Celine and Alice start fucking behind Sadie’s back.

Celine is a chaotic butch who loves Dr. Pepper, instant ramen, and has a mismatched collection of novelty mugs. I could picture her almost immediately. Her daughter Sadie is much more measured, almost performative in her straightness, like it’s somehow a rebellion against everything her mother is. She struggles to have sex due to mommy issues. Her best friend Alice, though, is her more outgoing and impulsive counterpart. Whereas Sadie attempts to script every aspect of her life (and in fact, schemed her way into best friendship with Alice), Alice improvises her way through life. Literally, probably, as she’s an aspiring actress. She also comes from massive wealth but works as a server as a restaurant, performing a sort of down-to-earthness.

Everyone, not just actress Alice, is putting on a performance in Alice Sadie Celine, and everyone is casting each other in the roles they see fit instead of seeing them as wholly complex people. To Sadie, Alice is her best friend; she doesn’t get to be anything else. Alice sees Sadie the same way. Celine sees her daughter as an extension of herself and not in a sweet way but rather in a god complex way. In every direction of this triangle, codependency seeps in like toxic sludge. In trying so hard to not be like her mother, Sadie paradoxically centers her mother in everything she does.

The novel is told in alternating perspectives between the three women, their serpentine names (so many S sounds!!!!) suddenly easy to mix up as you’re reading, a confusion that feels intentional as boundaries are eroded and the codependency shifts and morphs. When Celine attends a play Alice is in, she becomes immediately enraptured by her. But the festering obsession comes from an almost embarrassingly simple origin: Alice is wearing stonewashed jeans that remind her of her first lover.

Alice Sadie Celine indeed understands sex and desire to be powerful and yet also almost animalistic and uncomplicated when it comes to initial impulses. Celine is drawn to Alice because she’s feeling nostalgic and also like Sadie is slipping away from her. Obsessing over Alice is her way of possessing Sadie. Alice is drawn to what she perceives as Celine’s self-assuredness, a quality she herself lacks. All three women struggle to see beyond themselves, treating their relationships like games of chess.

What I love about the quick burning affair between Celine and Alice is that it’s sour from the start. Yes, they have marathon sex all night in various corners of Alice’s Airbnb, but they really do just seem to be going through the motions, using each other as they see fit. It’s what makes it laughably absurd that they then attempt to have a real relationship, at first behind Sadie’s back and then after revealing the truth. Celine and Alice never really like each other, only the idea of each other. What they both actually crave is Sadie’s approval, which Sadie is almost sadistically withholding of.

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright brings great humor to her renderings of this dysfunctional trio, penning one of my favorite fucked up mother-daughter dynamics I’ve read in a while. There’s a certain absurdity to everyday life, to sex and to familiar relationships, and this novel captures that well, often leaning into discomfort. It’s a wholly original affair novel and immensely skillful for an adult debut. An age gap novel that’s simultaneously convincing and critical of why its central affair happens, Alice Sadie Celine is sharp in its musings on the sometimes boring predictability of horny human impulses.

In its final section, the novel breaks its own form to introduce a new perspective, and while initially I found this coda overlong on first read, I enjoyed it more on a revisit, appreciating the sort of experimental way it functions, complicating our ideas of wrongness, hurt, and even narrative. It’s true that sometimes the things that feel like acute betrayals and dramas in the moment eventually begin to erode. It’s true that sometimes we hurt the people we’re close to for no good reason. This epilogue (it’s not labeled as such, but it functions as one) burrows into some of those contradictions and meta-reflections on how even if we’re presented with all three sides of a story, there’s still no way to know the complete truth of it all.

Alice Sadie Celine by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is out now.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 858 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. I had great hopes for this book and enjoyed it until I realized that it was following the old trope where the lesbians are dysfunctional and unhappy, but the straight people come across as reasonable and leading happy and fulfilling lives, unlike the lesbians. Not a great message to put out there. I’m not saying that novels can’t have dysfunctional lesbians, but this one becomes almost and anti-lesbian vehicle.

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