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“Big Swiss” Review: On the Queer Age Gap Novel Set in a House Full of Bees

I know I’m not supposed to fixate on a novel’s cover, but I find myself obsessed with this one. A woman’s mouth forms an O, her tongue sticking out, not quite all the way, but definitely at attention. Her tits spill out of a white milkmaid dress. She’s on her back, on what looks like a wood floor. Her hair fans out, and she isn’t the right side up, her head near the book’s bottom edge, her torso above. It’s an image that fits the book as snug as that milkmaid dress: amorous, humorous, ominous. The pages within similarly brim with mordant comedy, naked and captivating sexual heat, and strange but satisfying details at every turn.

In Jen Beagin’s sexy madcap new novel Big Swiss, Greta is a forty-five-year-old transcriptionist who diligently listens to and notates sex and relationship therapy sessions conducted by a harmless but very cringe man named Om in Hudson, New York. She spends her days listening to the sexual confessions of everyone in this small, artist-infested town where people are horny for farm-grown produce and gossip. She lives in an 18th century crumbling house with her eccentric friend Sabine. It’s full of bees, stinkbugs, and drafty crevices. She has a dog named Piñon who she dotes on and the baggage of leaving a ten-year engagement to a man named Stacy. Her mother killed herself when she was away at horse camp as a preteen, and she occasionally wishes to die, too. At the book’s beginning, she develops a feverish obsession with one of Om’s clients, who she dubs Big Swiss, because she’s tall and Swiss. Big Swiss is a 29-year-old gynecologist who has never had an orgasm. After an encounter at the dog park, they strike up a rumbling affair, complicated by the fact that Greta lies about who she really is and harbors the secret of knowing about Big Swiss’s inner sexual life, the ins and outs of her marriage to her husband, and her history with violence, including a brutal physical assault by a man who’s soon getting released from prison.

That’s a lot of preamble, yes, but I think my little summary accurately harnesses the strange and immersive dissonance of Big Swiss, how it veers from horny to humorous to macabre in zigs and zags. It’s a hot a sticky trap that’s instantly immersive, like a bee’s honey. Beagin’s prose titillates throughout, and movement between Greta’s transcripts and close-third narration from Greta’s point of view gives the story an interesting shape, asking us to view characters from afar and then smashing us close. (We’re in such a close third from Greta’s POV that the book keeps referring to Big Swiss as such, even after Greta learns her real name.) Greta keeps listening to and transcribing Big Swiss’s sessions even once they’re entangled, lying to her lover and to her boss, essentially reading Big Swiss’s diaries. Sometimes, there’s significant tension and difference between the moments Greta and Big Swiss live out together and the ways they’re framed in these sessions — if they’re touched on at all.

Greta’s charmingly old house crumbles into squalid wreckage through Big Swiss’s sessions, when she describes it to Om. “I don’t know why she doesn’t move,” Big Swiss says in session, Greta closely transcribing. “She could easily find a place in town, a place with a thermostat. But the only piece of real estate she’s interested in is my vagina. She talks about it like it’s an apartment she’s renting.

Greta interrupts this, alone in her decrepit home full of bees: “‘Uh, that’s a gross misquote,’ Greta said. ‘I compared it to the antechamber, because it’s ten degrees warmer in there.'”

Here, Greta attempts to have a dialogue with someone who doesn’t even know she’s listening in. But the real revelation here isn’t Greta’s ongoing violation; it’s the fact of different perceptions, of the story shifting depending on who’s telling it. Big Swiss isn’t misquoting necessarily. She’s saying what it meant to her. Greta has made Big Swiss into a character, and when Big Swiss’s own perception is at odds with this role Greta has cast her in, she festers.

The novel asks ongoing and open-ended questions about sex, trauma, violence, about violation, observation, obsession. In her first session, Big Swiss tells Om: “I’m not attached to my suffering. I’m not attached to what happened to me. I don’t believe it explains everything about me, because I haven’t made it part of my identity. I’m a worker, not a wallower. I would never call myself a ‘survivor.'”

The novel isn’t dismissive or flip about trauma itself but rather is sharply critical of social media’s breeding of trauma discourse, of the pop psychology that festoons pretty infographics and flattens words in ways that dampens their meaning. Greta often provides her own commentary while listening to Om’s sessions, highlighting his surface-level analyses and frustrating tendency to suggest mindfulness practices when he himself is not really listening to what people are saying. Greta self-analyzes and armchair-diagnoses others with erratic aim. The book is very much about processing trauma but all the odd forms that can take, things that don’t fit so neatly on an infographic. Big Swiss is also about shifting desires and, in some ways, our inability to perfectly parcel out why we want the things we want.

The sex in the book, as a result, is a little kinky and very specific. Greta and Big Swiss explore and revel in the contours of each other’s bodies but also of what it is they really want from each other, which sometimes evades them, as these things often do. This very much feels like a sex novel but without being obnoxious about it. It’s erotic in bursts and embeds into its fabric weighty contemplations on sex and relationships, with nuance and mess. Does Big Swiss crave control over Greta because of what happened to her? Does Greta desire Big Swiss because of what happened to her? Is their age gap connected to any of it? Om would have very straightforward and clean answers to these questions. Big Swiss, crucially, does not.

Instead, Greta and Big Swiss get to be more complex — sometimes frustrating and confusing, too — versus being boxed in as Good Survivors. They are not defined by what happened to them, but of course they are affected by it. It’s not necessarily Greta’s mother’s suicide itself that hangs heavy on her but the other things that touch it. The biggest tension between Greta and Big Swiss stems not from their steep age gap, not from a game of trauma Olympics, and not even from Greta’s deception, but from their divergent approaches to living. Big Swiss knows exactly what it means to fight for her life, and Greta lives hers almost as a passive participant, as someone who transcribes what’s around her rather than really experiencing it. Obsession will forever be one of my favorite forces in fiction, and the compulsions Big Swiss and Greta have toward each other — even at their ugliest — are bewitching.

The book’s very funny, too.

In a particularly excellent iteration of the Awkward Dinner Party trope in fiction, Greta joins Big Swiss and her hapless husband at their home for a meal of cheese fondue. It’s an absurd thing to eat in general, but especially when the dinner guests are a young woman, her husband, and the significantly older woman she’s having an extramarital affair with. Dipping hunks of bread into warm cheese while everyone speaks in crisp subtext? Absolutely stunning levels of discomfort comedy.

The cadence of the prose, macabre sense of humor, and themes (specifically of suicide, sex, jealousy, and self-sabotage) remind me a lot of Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, a book I wish I’d reviewed and more people had read. It’s short, so pick it up and thank me soon after. Big Swiss is longer but similarly quick-paced and buzzing. They’d pair well together, on a weekend where you wanna read about age gaps, obsession, and sex with an undercurrent of upheaval. Which for me is pretty much every weekend.

The novel has already been optioned and is in development as a series at HBO with none other than Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer set to star as Big Swiss. It’s the most perfect casting choice I can think of, her style of humor and comedic timing perfect for this story, which is somehow both subtle and over-the-top.


Big Swiss by Jen Beagin 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 839 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. This sounds fun! The book’s also being made into a TV show starring Jodie Comer as “Big Swiss” (and she’s also an exec producer). I don’t believe we know any other cast members yet.

  2. I really appreciate this review! I loved Big Swiss and can’t wait for the Jodie Comer show. I found it hilarious and smart and really surprising in great ways. I also agree the sex is accurately described as “specific” lol.
    One thing I will offer: I didn’t really think about this as a book with an age gap, I guess because both women are solidly Adults… Greta is older than Flav, but I didn’t really contextualize their book or relationship as having that matter all too much. I think especially because Greta seems so green in her sexuality? Really intriguing to see a focus on it here and something I’ll chew on. Thank you for the review!

    • i won’t lie lol, my title is a liiiiittle click baity tbh because yeah i don’t think the age gap factors into the narrative a ton (but people are INTERESTED in age gap novels rn). i did find Flav muuuuuuch greener in her sexuality than Greta though, and i was def thinking about age sometimes, but maybe that’s just my own sensibilities as a reader. but i think it’s also clear that the meaningful power imbalance stems not from age but from Greta lying about having access to Flav’s sessions, which I think the book does a great job of unpacking.

  3. There are rumors that Aubrey Plaza could play Greta and even Jen Beagin recently said in an interview that she would love that casting. :O If that turns out to be true, lesbian internet will probably explode :))

  4. I devoured this one in a day and a half and then immediately read it again. it is so FUNNY. I cackled out loud, in public, so many times. I don’t think any book has made me laugh this much since Priestdaddy – something about the narration and the way Greta describes people and animals very much reminds me of Patricia Lockwood’s distinct writing style.

    OK and the fact that Jodie Comer herself pitched this manuscript, signed on as a producer and cast herself as Big Swiss? incredible! no notes!

  5. The sex in this book is the least erotic I’ve ever read. A better writer could have nailed esoteric descriptions of orifices as buildings, but Beagin doesn’t. I felt like I was told rather than shown that Greta opened herself up to feeling her own desires. The narration never got less detached and sardonic than it started out. And I wish I could say that the book’s failure to resolve any of the questions it asks in the beginning felt like a narrative choice. I’m all for an open-ended exploration of trauma and its role in our lives outside of the usual #traumanarrarive. But Beagin simple posed interesting questions and then failed to follow through, completely dropping narrative threads she introduced in the beginning of the book. No surprise this book got a good review from Autostraddle, though, since it’s aesthetically appealing on a surface level without wanting to delve into the nuances of gay experience.

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